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Continuing Education

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Cala rose, bathed, and dressed himself in a bleary state of bemusement, and when Beshelar met him, similarly bleary but immaculate, at the kitchen for breakfast, he said, “We don’t remember going to bed last night.”

“Oh,” Beshelar said, and had to stop for a jaw-cracking yawn. “Didst fall asleep on me in the kitchen. Aisava and I had to drag thee back here and throw thee into bed. I didn’t take thy trousers off thee because it was too awkward. I hope thou wert not too uncomfortable thus.”

Cala blushed. “I was exceptionally tired,” he said.

“I’d not judge thee,” Beshelar said, and his tone was unmistakably fond. He nudged Cala with his elbow. “I do hope today won’t be so hectic.”

The kitchen staff were all moving somewhat slowly, perhaps hung-over. But the gossip was flowing apace, and Cala listened with mild interest to the cook’s recounting of a scullery maid’s near-dawn encounter with the Zhasan, who had slept the whole night in the Emperor’s bedchamber and come out briefly to use the latrine and hadn’t she been blushing and tousled and overall had the look of a woman well-fucked, for certain, and her edocharo had confirmed it this morning, each of the couple had needed a bath this morning and hadn’t likely had much sleep-- and the kitchen staff all made approving comments as if the Emperor were their own son, as if this were some notably laudable feat-- and honestly, perhaps it was, and Cala looked forward somewhat to Kiru’s perspective on things. If only to know how she’d possibly come through all of that unruffled as she certainly had.

Beshelar glowered disapprovingly through the whole conversation, but didn’t speak up to silence it, not even when one of the scullery-maids did a crude impression of the sounds a woman would make while being sexually satisfied. It fell to Echelo to remind them all to behave.

“I thought thou’d’st have more to say than that,” Cala teased Beshelar gently as they went along to the sitting room where the Emperor and Empress were collecting themselves for their day.

“It’s little enough I’d have to contribute to that sort of conversation,” Beshelar scoffed.

“I thought thou’d’st chastise them into silence,” Cala said.

Beshelar looked mildly wounded. “It’s harmless fun,” he said. “An nobody said aught cruelly, I’ve no particular objection, even if it’s not to my taste.”

Kiru caught Cala’s eye as they came through the door, and jerked her head toward the other doorway. Cala glanced at Beshelar to let him know he was going to get the debrief, and Beshelar lowered his eyebrows in agreement, going over to stand near Telimezh. Telimezh looked mildly flustered or distressed, Cala noted, pink about the ears and his ears a bit low, and thought perhaps he’d ask Kiru to give the two guards a moment to debrief before they parted ways.

Cala closed the door behind himself and turned to Kiru, hands on hips. “Well?”

“Well,” she said, smiling, “it all went well and was very sweet, overall. What else did any of us expect?”

“Awkwardness,” Cala said, pretending to count on his fingers, “shyness, she inadvertently sets him off on one of his fits where he-- oh my gods,” and he looked up, “did anyone warn Herself about shouting at Himself?”

Kiru looked stricken. “I don’t know,” she said. “At any rate, she didn’t!”

“Aisava would know,” Cala said. “I’ll ask him if she’s been cautioned.”

“It’s not like we need to bear tales of him,” Kiru fretted, “and surely it should be up to him to disclose aught, but--”

“She should be warned,” Cala said. “So that she understands somewhat of the reasoning of how he is.”

“Yes, just that,” Kiru said. “Mm, mayhap I could speak with her today--”

“Thou needst rest,” Cala said. “Surely thou hadst a long night.”

“It was a short shift,” Kiru protested, but yawned. “Well--”

“Rest,” Cala said. “Aught I should know?”

Kiru considered that. “Nothing specific,” she said. “The conspiracists who hoped Edrehasivar would not seek to father children of his own should be aware that their hopes are thoroughly dashed, however.”

Cala raised his eyebrows. “Surely she can’t already--”

“No,” Kiru laughed, “no woman can know so quickly-- but shouldst thou have questions about the finer details of reproductive processes, I could answer them. Suffice to say, the two of them are well-informed and by now, well-practiced; theirs will not be merely a political marriage, and they have begun their attempts to conceive an heir.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if anyone asks,” Cala said, a little bemused.

Kiru shook her head slightly. “Gossip is more important than thou knowest,” she said. “Were they not already discussing it in the kitchen?”

“They were,” Cala admitted.

“See,” she said, satisfied. “Though I think it was out of necessity, it was a politic maneuver of Herself to go out to visit the washroom in the middle of the night, rather than merely using the chamber-pot and basin, for we were seen, and she was not shy about her state.”

“Her state,” Cala said.

“She was wearing only the dressing-gown, her hair was dramatically mussed, and she didn’t bother with slippers,” Kiru said. “It wasn’t subtle.”

“I see,” Cala said.

“So,” Kiru said, by way of conclusion, and gestured with one hand, palm-up. “Even if no heir is immediately forthcoming, it won’t be for want of trying, and there’ll be little room for gossips to claim there isn’t any trying going on.”

Cala nodded, and went to open the door, and then paused. “Should we give Telimezh some time to debrief with Beshelar? He looks-- upset, perhaps?”

Kiru looked uncharacteristically amused, for a moment. “Oh,” she said, “well, this morning, when Themselves awoke, they, ah-- well, I had traded places with Telimezh once I thought they were settled for sleeping the rest of the night, and then this morning they woke and did not immediately get out of bed, so--”

“Ah,” Cala said. “Yes. Well-- I imagine we’re all going to have to get used to it.”

A door farther along the hall opened, and they paused, looking to see who it was. “Good morning,” Csevet said politely. His arm was still in the sling but must be feeling better, for he had his hair beautifully styled.

“Good morning,” they chorused back.

“We trust all is well with Himself?” Csevet inquired delicately, looking at Kiru.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Shift change debrief, is all.”

“The wedding night was-- restful?” Csevet asked, ever tactful.

“Ah, no,” Kiru said, “but mutually satisfying, yes.”

Csevet made a slightly-wobbly face as he clearly considered that. “We suppose we’re proud of him,” he said, “though that seems a strange thing to feel?”

“I’m very proud of both of them,” Kiru said, “they both took initiative and collaborated on research and mutual support and made what could have been horribly awkward into a beautiful and wonderful thing. They’re good allies for one another and I am delighted at the whole thing.”

“Allies,” Csevet said. “Yes, that’s what he needed-- an ally.”

“Indeed,” Kiru said. “Well, I should go and collect poor Telimezh.”



Csevet was horribly, horribly hung-over, which was unfair given that he’d probably only had three or four cups of wine over the course of the entire day and night. But he was so tired, bone-deep tired, and he hadn’t had either enough water or sleep in days. His shoulder blade hurt, too, a deep ache that faded out with the throbbing of his head, but was noticeable enough to be bothersome.

He stubbornly did his hair, despite the pain; he could do it now, though it hurt, so he wasn’t going to go back to the simpler hairstyles. Avris had offered to help him, but rousing the edocharis this morning seemed inhumane.

He managed to get himself into a presentable state and up to the kitchen in time to encounter the nohecharei shift change in the hallway, and get the scoop from Kiru on how the royal wedding night had been.

He was fortunate, he supposed, in that his hopeless, boundless crush on his Emperor was not the type that tended toward jealousy. He’d never been a particularly jealous lover, had never had much chance to be; the part of Himself that so appealed was not his virginity. So the only particular torment in it was that there was more to imagine-- and as he took his seat at the table with the folio of papers he wasn’t supposed to be carrying but nobody had noticed, he noted with some chagrin that Edrehasivar was sitting next to Csethiro and trading blushing pleasantries with her, both of them so beautifully, awkwardly over-aware of one another in the manner of recently first-time lovers.

The look suited Csethiro; she was no very great beauty but had such personality in her face, and to see her normal keen looks replaced with this over-attentive sweetness, all overlaid with a kind of radiant sparkle-- it suited her well, and to see her sparkle mirrored in Edrehasivar was almost unbearably lovely.

Csevet found his salvation in Beshelar, who seemed similarly unable to withstand watching the newlyweds. His opening gambit of abusing the man’s overtiredness to plumb his interest last night had been somewhat cowardly; there was a chance Beshelar wouldn’t even remember, today. But as both of them glanced away from a radiant laugh of Maia’s that set off a blush of Csethiro’s, their gazes crossed, and Beshelar raised his eyebrows and gave Csevet a very uncharacteristic wink. So uncharacteristic, in fact, that Csevet noticed with great amusement that the man couldn’t actually wink properly, so it wound up just being a lopsided blink. For some reason that made it even more endearing.

As breakfast ended and everyone left the table, Csevet had a thought of trying to corner Beshelar for a moment to work out a time they could perhaps discuss this potential understanding, but discovered that Cala was instead attempting to corner him to talk privately about something, so he let it go and followed the maza out obediently, hoping he wasn’t about to get a warning off or somesuch. He had no real notion what kind of relationship the nohecharei had among themselves, despite Cala’s earlier disclaimer.

Cala fetched up in the corner of the room with Csevet, quite close. “We realized, Kiru and I, we don’t know if anyone has spoken to the Zhasan about…” He hesitated. “Himself’s history?”

Csevet blinked, worked that out in his mind, and said, “Oh. No, I don’t know.”

“It’s not that we wish to-- expose his sordid secrets to her,” Cala said, fingers twisting nervously in a frayed bit along the sleeve hem of his robe. “But. She should know-- not to raise her voice. That sort of thing.”

“If we tell her Setheris Nelar’s specific role in it she’ll have him killed,” Csevet pointed out.

“Not if we also tell her our own complex calculations into whether his survival or disappearance would be more upsetting,” Cala said. “It’s a fine line and we do the math continually. Provided Nelar never does anything to draw Himself’s attention again, it is less destructive to leave him alive. But if ever Himself is obligated to notice him, then it tips the balance and we kill him, and we’ve made sure he knows this.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that Csevet just stared at him. “We?” Csevet said finally; Cala had used the plural.

“We’ll not tell you who specifically would do it,” Cala said, “for plausible deniability. If ever anyone asks you, you don’t know who did it, and thus cannot be coerced into bearing witness.” He grinned, a cold and toothy expression that was profoundly unnerving. “Anyway it would depend on the circumstances. He might just disappear instead.”

“We see,” Csevet said. He tapped his fingers against the strap of his sling. “Well, at any rate, as for the Zhasan-- it’s possible she’s put it together herself, but we could have a word with her quietly at some point today. Although, you and Beshelar have the first-hand account of it.”

“Beshelar or we could also do it,” Cala said. “Well, we shall leave you to it, but if you hesitate, let us know, and one of us will speak with her after our shift ends.”

Csevet nodded crisply, and they went to catch up to the rest of the entourage.



Csethiro was wrong: she was sore. It was mostly the muscles of her thighs, which she must have been clenching, but also, more intimately, her pelvic bones felt somewhat-- not bruised, but-- well, she wasn’t entirely uncomfortable but she was aware of her own anatomy in truly unexpected and constant ways. She had simply never realized there were nerves there, to feel aught, but whether she stood or sat or bent or moved or sat still, she could feel that she was not one solid mass all the way through, which was a novel thing.

And then, of course, the awareness would make her think back on the cause of it, and then she’d catch herself thinking on the sensation of him inside her, that startlingly electric pleasure and hot thick slide and his trembling breath on her neck, and then she’d blush, and lose the thread of whatever was going on, and-- it was fine, no one could possibly retain any belief that she was faking any of this, but she felt she was making a spectacle of herself.

Csoru was coolly contemptuous about all of it, but that was as much trouble as she apparently felt she could give. Csethiro, of course, didn’t merit nohecharei, but she was escorted by guards nonetheless, and for some reason her escort today comprised one Untheliense Guard and one Hezethoreize Guard, who between the two of them made a striking pair-- the Untheliense Guardsman was tall and slender and pale, and the Hezethoriese Guardsman was nearly as tall but intimidatingly stocky, deep gray with red eyes and black hair. But it wasn’t the guards that intimidated Csoru.

No, it was Arbelan, who had more or less fastened herself to Csethiro’s side and kept giving her wistful, knowing glances whenever she fell into a fit of blushing. They hadn’t had a chance for any private conversation, but apparently didn’t need any.

When they did meet more privately for a moment in the hallway, Csethiro rushed to express her gratitude to Arbelan for doing so much to quash Csoru, and Arbelan laughed. “We think the Archduchess Vedero had some stern words with her as well,” she said.

“Did she,” Csethiro said. Well, that was kind. She wouldn’t have thought Vedero had so much sway, socially, and yet-- surely, she did, and in this post-Varenechibel era, there was doubtless a vast array of new power structures unfolding themselves. Vedero being de facto granted her independence in her own right, without marriage, was an unprecedented move, and had set her up as a hitherto unknown sort of power within the court.

Csethiro had already somewhat understood this, and had reached out to the woman now that they were, by marriage, kin, to strengthen their earlier connection which had been largely over academic matters. But she was likely going to want a closer alliance with her, and this was a wonderfully practical overture on Vedero’s part.

“Yes,” Arbelan said. “We knew her not, before now, but we find ourself rapidly growing to treasure her.”

“We must thank her,” Csethiro said.

Arbelan glanced around to confirm no one was in earshot, and twined her arms through Csethiro’s elbow. “My dear,” she said more quietly, “thy blushes are so sweet, thou look’st most becomingly enamored. Hast thou a charming tale of thy wedding-night, to rekindle the blackened and shriveled part of my heart that did used to believe in such things?”

Csethiro felt herself blush straight up to her hairline. “Auntie,” she said, pleased and embarrassed, “I-- it’s Maia, of course he was sweet and shy and determined and most thorough.”

Arbelan laughed, delighted. “I am so fond of that boy,” she said, and shook her head. “I do not have to tell thee he is nothing like his father.”

Csethiro went solemn at that, and took Arbelan’s hands. “I am sorry for thee, then,” she said.

“Oh,” Arbelan said, “pity me not, Varenechibel wasn’t a beast. He’d plenty of experience before he first married, and knew how not to cause injury. It wasn’t so unpleasant. But it wasn’t... “ She sighed.

Someone stepped into the hall, and they both turned to look warily, but it was Archduchess Vedero. “Ah,” Csethiro said, “we have to thank you!”

Vedero came closer, smiling cautiously between the two of them. “What ever for, Highness?”

Csethiro reached out and took her hand, still holding Arbelan’s in her other one, and said, “You know what favor you have done me. Listen, we need to arrange a regular appointment with you; one of the things we wish to accomplish is to formalize our sponsorship of women’s academic achievements, and we are certain we can do nothing of that without your help, Archduchess.”

“We would be delighted,” Vedero said, and glanced up as yet another person came into the hallway. “My, it’s getting crowded in here.”

“Let’s move along,” Csethiro said, with a laugh, “not everyone needs to stand in the hallway--  my, what’s the clock? We think there’s a luncheon we were meant to attend.”

“Have you no assistant?” Arbelan asked. Then, with a laugh, “We suppose you haven’t had time to get one, yet.”

“We have-- edocharei,” Csethiro said, not certain what Arbelan was asking. “A housekeeper, staff--”

“No, a secretary,” Arbelan said, as they moved back into the main room. “You need a secretary, to manage your schedule, you’ll have quite too much to do to manage on your own.”

“Oh,” Csethiro said. Her household’s staff had been managing all of the business of preparing for her wedding, but of course, while her dowry had included a great deal of household materials and some servants, there really had been no one administrative. “Oh, yes. We had not considered--”

“Hire a woman,” Vedero said quietly.

Csethiro and Arbelan both turned to look at her. “As a secretary?” Arbelan said. “Well, it’s been done, but normally it’s because of a jealous husband, which is hardly a concern in this case.”

“Hire a woman on her own merits,” Vedero said, “not because she is not a man. We can provide you with a list of suitable candidates by this afternoon.”

“That would be excellent,” Csethiro said.

“The more women you can cause to be hired into administrative pursuits,” Vedero said, “the more sincere your patronage of the advancement of women’s academic achievements will be. We do need educated idle noblewomen, to be sure, but we also need educated noblewomen working in jobs requiring, and proving, their intellects and mettle.”

“This is an excellent point,” Csethiro said.

She was still thinking it over as she went to her next appointment. A woman as a secretary would really be perfect, and she had a candidate or two in mind already as soon as she thought of it, but surely Vedero would have even more candidates, and insights into the choosing of them. Vedero herself had an assistant, who Csethiro and only a few others knew was also her lover, but the woman was an intensely capable and clear-sighted person.

After her luncheon, Csethiro had a great deal of organizing to do, as she was formally moving into the suite of rooms that had been granted to her as the Empress. She’d already had a lot of organizing and coordinating to do, but the process had largely been overseen by a staff member of the Alcethmeret’s facilities department. She had hired a housekeeper, as well, and had naively assumed that would be enough. But now she could clearly see, she needed someone administrative at a higher level; the household’s oversight was well and good, but there was a lot more that would have to go on, and she didn’t think Maia’s household was going to take charge of any eventual children. No, it would fall to her to hire help for that, and even if she did most of the childcare herself, she still had a lot of formal events she’d be required to attend, for which she would need additional child-attending help. And tutors, and the like…

That was all far in the future. For now, she had someone in charge of her clothes and jewelry, someone in charge of the running of the household, but nobody in charge of coordinating both along with her income and expenditures, and all of her scheduling and accounting.

It was a lot.

She had spent some time, an hour or two, at work on the ledgers as well as overseeing the arrangement of some of the furnishings, when Vedero stopped by, with her assistant. The two women had a great deal of very useful advice about household organization, were delighted to be the first guests served food and drink-- tea and cakes-- in the drawing-room, and gave her a fairly good overview of each of the candidates on their list to potentially be her secretary.

The housekeeper, a sturdy and sensible woman named Danelo Uzhlar, sat in on part of the meeting, and earnestly took notes about some of their suggestions for how to host salons and the like. Vedero promised to send her own housekeeper over with notes as well, swearing that the woman was a genius.

“We would appreciate advice,” Danelo said, forestalling Csethiro’s worry that the woman might be offended. She’d worked in a number of households, and was a merchant’s daughter, and had come highly recommended by her family’s housekeeper, and Csethiro was slightly intimidated by her.

Vedero helped Csethiro put the potential candidates in order, and was just winding up her visit, when Danelo announced another visitor: the Emperor’s secretary, Csevet Aisava.

“Is he on your side?” Vedero asked keenly, in the moment before he came in the room, and Csethiro had only time to say, “We hope so,” before the man himself was shown in.

He was impeccable as ever; he had always been notably perfect in appearance, though of late somewhat marred by having his arm bound up in a sling. After pleasantries were exchanged, Csethiro was delighted that Vedero immediately asked him, “What happened to your arm, Mer Aisava?”

“Oh,” Aisava said, the tips of his ears coloring delicately, “sometimes life in the Emperor’s household is unexpectedly high-stakes. There was a tragic misunderstanding and we wound up more or less tackled into a wall, which would have been inconsequential except for an unfortunate bit of molding, that cracked the blade of this shoulder-- most unfortunate, but an accident.”

“Who tackled you?” Csethiro asked, aghast; she’d idly enquired before, but in the flow of conversation had been given only a desultory answer that there’d been some sort of clumsy mishap.

Aisava’s blush extended across his cheeks somewhat, now, which made Csethiro resolve to find out what could possibly consistently needle him to this extent, because she wanted to see him like this more often. He was exquisite. “Well,” he said, “Beshelar, which is how we know that it was an accident, with what a dear friend he is.”

To Vedero and her assistant’s blank looks, Csethiro said, “That’s one of Edrehasivar’s First Nohecharei, Lt. Beshelar. I could see his reflexes operating rather in advance of his reasoning. He is very beautiful, and very brave, and very, ah, keen.”

“Indeed,” Aisava said, still blushing, “well, it wasn’t his fault, but, the lesson there is to take him seriously in all things. He was absolutely justified, we must protest your assumption, my lady; the fault was ours, entirely. But we came here not for gossip, at present-- though, on another occasion, we would be delighted, time does not allow for it today.”

“We are not here for gossip either,” Vedero put in, “although since you are here, Mer Aisava, your input on a list of potential candidates for a direct counterpart to do for the Empress the job that you do for the Emperor, would be welcome.”

“Ah,” Aisava said, attention sharpening. “Yes. We would be delighted.”

Vedero showed him the list, and went over it with him, beginning with an apology to Csethiro for the information potentially being redundant, but Csethiro waved her off gratefully-- her summation was far more incisive and succinct than Csethiro’s own would have been, necessarily secondhand. Aisava nodded seriously at each candidate, and she could tell he had heard at least of their families-- his knowledge did seem encyclopedic, and she wondered whether all the couriers were so well-informed or whether Aisava were an exceptionally keen specimen. It did occur to her to wonder how Edrehasivar had chosen him in the first place.

After the list had been gone over, Aisava sat for a moment lost in thought, and then glanced up, affixing Csethiro with a keen blue-eyed stare. “All women,” he observed.

“Yes,” Vedero said, and his eyes shifted to her thoughtfully, then back to Csethiro.

“And not for the usual reason, we can assume,” he said.

“No,” Csethiro said, and his ears flicked minutely at that confirmation.

He looked back over at Vedero, glanced briefly at her assistant, and then looked back down at the list. “We think we understand,” he said. “Well.” He looked up at Csethiro. “We will make ourself available to assist in vetting these candidates,” he said. “Our availability is limited, you understand, but we can write out for you a list of times when we know Hims-- the Emperor will have other obligations and thus will not need our attendance. If that suits, we will have that for you by dinner.”

“That would be-- fantastically helpful,” Csethiro said fervently.

Vedero stood. “We assume Mer Aisava came here to speak with you on some other matter, my lady,” she said, “and time is passing, so we will take our leave now, but please do not hesitate to contact us should you require any other assistance at all.”

Csethiro stood as well and took her hands, clasping them for a moment and looking into her-- well, she was her sister-in-law, now-- friend’s face, noting for the first time that she did bear a resemblance to Maia around the eyes, at the least in their similar shade of clear gray. “I thank thee, friend,” she said. “I hope we can do good together.”

Vedero smiled, and the resemblance to Maia intensified. “I hope so too,” she said.

She took her leave, and Csethiro turned back to look at Aisava, who was examining his fingernails as if, perhaps, concealing nervousness. “You had aught to discuss with us?” she asked.

Aisava looked up, took a deep breath, and nodded. “You are, we believe, a clear-sighted and quick-witted person,” he began. Csethiro came and resumed her seat, realizing this was not likely to be quick. “So this may not in fact be new information for you. It concerns your husband’s upbringing.”

Csethiro sat forward in alarm, and then considered the source, considered how close she had observed Mer Aisava to be to her husband, how often they laughed together: this was something Aisava was sharing out of protectiveness, not gossip. “It seems to me he has spent a great proportion of his life alone in cold darkness,” she said, “with only hateful company.”

Aisava’s eyes fixed sharply on her, and he nodded. “You have the general shape of it, then,” he said.

She folded her hands across her midsection so that she did not make fists. “He would not let me look at him on our wedding night,” she said, “because he was so firmly convinced, somehow, that he was a uniquely hideous specimen. It struck me that this was not a conclusion any rational being would have arrived at, and certainly not one he had formed himself, independently.”

Aisava’s ears dipped so low in distress she thought he might be about to weep, but then tremblingly pulled themselves up again, his face crumpling then straightening to match. “Yes,” Aisava said grimly, “someone told him that. And worse.” He mastered himself, attaining a neutral ear position with visible difficulty. “We,” he said, using the plural, “his household staff-- we have learned certain-- behaviors to avoid in his presence.”

Csethiro nodded solemnly, rubbing her hands along the front of her skirt to control her own agitation. “Please,” she said. “Tell me.”

“We never shout,” he said. “Never speak to him with great force. One can raise one’s voice, perhaps, but one must be cautious never to do so directed at him. Also-- “ He hesitated. “Of course we would never do this, but as you are more nearly his equal, you might innocently do so-- but you must never raise your hand as if to strike him, not even in jest, nor make any sudden motion as though you might.”

Csethiro felt her ears sink as her heart sank. “Oh no,” she said. “He was-- beaten?”

“Frequently,” Aisava confirmed. “He was provoked into explaining it, during an audience where we were present. There are scars, on his left forearm, from an incident where as a young teenager he was thrown against a fire-grate.”

Csethiro gasped. She’d noticed the marks, mostly as ridges of smoothness under her fingers, but she had glimpsed the silver tracery, and had paid it little heed, assuming to be the evidence of an active childhood like hers. She had innumerable scars upon her limbs, from horseback riding and fencing and climbing trees and learning to sail and all the things her indulgent father had let her do before marrying her stepmother too late for the taste for them to be entirely excised. She covered her mouth with her hands, thinking of those scars, thinking of how uniquely painful she knew burns were, thinking of-- “His guardian did this?”

Aisava held up a hand. “We have already calculated that to kill the man would cause Edrehasivar even greater distress than to leave him where he is,” he said. And he used the plural: clearly, this was something he and the nohecharei had discussed in complete sincerity, and it eased her heart to hear it, slightly.

“But I mean,” Csethiro said, struggling for the words-- “he had no one he could appeal to, no one who would protect him-- clearly his father did not see fit to intervene.”

Aisava nodded slowly. “That is the crux of it,” he said. “There was no one else he could even talk to, but this man who hated him and had no mercy upon him. That kind of helplessness--”

“Oh,” Csethrio said, and covered her face entirely, closing her eyes and thinking on her husband’s beautiful face and how she had absolutely noticed the way he sometimes went blank-- fear, it was fear that did that to him, she had tentatively identified it before but now she knew for sure. “Oh no.”

When she opened her eyes again, Aisava was studying his fingers again. “We were the one who took him the message telling him he was Emperor,” he said. “So we went to Edonomee, and we saw-- how he was treated, there. Only indirectly, but it was-- unmistakable. It was a miserable place and he was miserable, and his guardian was a miserable creature.”

“And you have done the calculations,” Csethiro said.

“Yes,” Aisava said. “He-- anytime the Emperor had to be in the man’s presence he was so upset-- not obviously, you understand, but if one knew him well it was possible to discern it-- that we deemed that the least possible disruption to him would be if he never had to see, hear of, or think about the man again. Of course Edrehasivar will not allow anyone to be relegated, or imprisoned, or executed, without some kind of hearing or trial, so that is right out. But we have arranged to make it clear to the man that should for any reason he come to the Emperor’s attention again, that gentle balance will become upset and it will become the most expedient thing for him to be arranged to somehow mysteriously vanish or perish, or both.”

“It wouldn’t be enough,” Csethiro said. “Murdering him wouldn’t be enough to make it worth the pain it would cause Maia. You are correct.”

“Exactly so,” Aisava said.

“But if it comes to that,” she said.

“My lady, you’ll have to get in line,” Aisava said, with a glimmer of black humor.

Chapter Text

 

Beshelar woke to find that a message had been left slid under the door of the nohecharei suite, a little handwritten note that had been hand-delivered and had no seal. He was tired and stumbling with weariness, as he often was when the rest shift was in the afternoon; he’d wake the rest of the way shortly, but it took him a bit. The note had his name on it, so he collected it and sat on the divan and rubbed sleep from his eyes.

It was from Csevet, he deciphered, and then he blinked at the block of gracefully-written text and his heart quailed. That was a lot of words to read. He was fast enough at single words and short blocks and things, but a long note like this with no obvious function--

He needed tea, first. He was early, had woken early thanks to the new and very fancy alarm clock he’d been awarded from household stores after the mishap where the maid had forgotten to wake them, and it let him set whatever interval he wanted and then would chime to wake him. He was looking forward to getting into the habit of giving himself a bit more time for these afternoon wakenings, so he could have himself more collected before leaving. The real pleasure would be if they ever got the third nohecharei up to speed, so he could have more rest shifts than the bare necessities of sleep. That was on today’s docket, a trial run with a new candidate shadowing part of the shift-- in fact, the candidate had already been shadowing Telimezh for approximately half of his shift, and so they’d both get a chance to try him out. He’d worked in the guarding of the Alcethmeret in the lead-up to the wedding, but Beshelar couldn’t remember which one this had been. It would be nice to have help, but Beshelar remained skeptical that this one would work out. On paper, he was the best of candidates, but Deret had a hunch there had to be something about him, something in the wording of his recommendation perhaps...

He washed and dressed, and then scratched at Cala’s door-- they had the clock now, but it was still only one clock among them-- and said “It’s a bit early yet, but--” and Cala yawned and said “That’s fine, I’ll join thee in the kitchen in a bit,” and Deret took his note and went to get a cup of tea.

He knew not to sit in the kitchen and try to read something that might be private, so he collected his tea and went to sit in the stairwell. It had been a lovely sunny day, and was now fading to evening, so he sat in an open window casement with his tea and this note.

At least Csevet had a good clear hand, much lovelier than the cramped soldiers’ scrawls Beshelar was used to puzzling over.

Beshelar,

I had hoped to catch thee sometime today to discover if thou rememberest our conversation of yesternight-- and if so, to continue it, and if not, to repeat it-- but circumstances intervened and I was unable. I am given to understand thy next shift won’t end until after dawn, but perhaps at some point during the sleeping hours we could speak? If not, it will have to wait until tomorrow night’s rest shift, for my daytime hours are not mine.

Csevet Aisava

Deret put his hand to his cheek, where Csevet Aisava had kissed him near dawn on the Emperor’s wedding night. He hadn’t-- forgotten, exactly, but it had been blurry, and somewhat overshadowed with weariness.

He’d told him yes, though, he remembered that.

Had that been a wise thing to tell him? He stared at the letter a moment, noting again that Csevet had used his family name, not his forename. Cala had spoken truly, when Himself had asked whether nohecharei were celibate-- it was logistically prohibitive. Deret had long ago come to terms with the fact that he was never going to be anyone’s great love, and likely wouldn’t even be anyone’s first choice, and he hadn’t really re-evaluated that in light of his new career path but the certainty was so well-worn that it had remained unquestioned. He wasn’t the sort of person anyone fell in love with, and he wasn’t the sort of person who fell in love in return anyway so it was just as well, and-- but somehow, even being offered-- what was it Aisava was even offering him? Whatever it was, Deret was suspicious. What could he possibly have that Aisava would want? No free time, and nothing in particular to recommend him-- just sex, then? But what sort of-- Deret had little experience, certainly nothing to compare with a former courier who had entertained his frequent lover just the other night. What could Deret possibly have that someone that sophisticated and experienced would even want?

He carefully folded the letter and put it away, in the inner pocket of the waistcoat he wore under his jacket for the chilly night-shifts. Possibly Csevet was expecting him to write a reply to hand over when their paths crossed, and Deret mentally cast about for what he would even need to do that. He didn’t keep much of an inventory of pen and paper; he’d had to borrow writing materials from Echelo for his cipher work. He wasn’t going to go to her now. His heart sank at the thought of trying to reply to Csevet’s lovely hand in his functional scrawl, with all the words he only really knew how to write as abbreviations. It was, on the face of it, ludicrous and borderline offensive. Like offering a wilted bouquet to a gardener.

He slunk off to the kitchen feeling curiously twisted-up and unsure of himself, and was glad to find Cala there, reliable and dreamy-eyed and immediately understanding, from whatever it was he picked out of Deret’s expression, that he shouldn’t ask any questions.

The guard candidate came out with Telimezh at the shift change, as Himself retreated to the Tortoise Room to unwind from dinner, and the Empress swept in to join him there from wherever she’d been all day. Deret let himself appreciate the genuine delight on her face as she saw Edrehasivar and lit up, all eager with wanting to tell him something about her day.

Nobody was ever going to light up at him like that. Nobody had really ever been glad to see him coming.

Except Telimezh, who didn’t exactly light up but whose expression shifted subtly to a profoundly relieved one. “Lieutenant Anda Horalar,” Telimezh said, “has shadowed us since the hour before dinner, and so has been shown much of what the duties surrounding a court dinner involve.”

Deret was somewhat startled to realize how well he could read Telimezh’s expression; the other man was subtly disapproving of the new recruit, something chilly and too formal behind his neutral expression. “Excellent,” he said, unsmiling, and saw Telimezh clock his reaction and incline his head slightly, eyebrows twitching ever so slightly down. Deret turned to Lt. Horalar, prepared to be unimpressed: the fellow was looking somewhat too keen and excitable for this sort of work, a middling sort of middle-sized man, a bit older than Deret himself, with an unmistakable air of-- ah, eagerness for gossip, Deret could recognize it, a kind of wide-eyed sly keenness, a faint air of amusement-- whatever it was, Deret had seen it before and could not explain it but definitely knew what it was.

They’d reviewed the list of candidates and on paper Horalar had looked all right, with the right classifications, but Deret imagined working with him, imagined cleaning up the messes of what gossip he would collect and let slip, and was immediately very, very tired.

Fairness dictated he let the man finish out his trial, however, and so he exchanged another nod with Telimezh, and then betook himself and his eager shadow into the Tortoise Room.

Of course Aisava was there. He was seated next to the Empress, going over something with her, and Edrehasivar was standing at a small remove, looking over their work with an air of pleased introspection. “-- number of candidates would share that trait, we are sure,” Csevet was saying.

“Good evening, Beshelar,” Edrehasivar said, noticing him.

Deret bowed politely, trying not to feel too warmed by his Emperor’s attention-- maybe nobody lit up to see him, but they didn’t seem to react with displeasure either. “Serenity,” he said.

“And you’ll be staying for part of this shift as well, Lieutenant Horalar?” Edrehasivar asked.

“Yes, Serenity,” Horalar said.

“Most excellent,” Edrehasivar said, but Deret thought perhaps he wasn’t truly pleased. This must be disruptive, to him, for them to be bringing strangers into his most intimate spaces like this. Whatever else happened, Deret resolved, Horalar was not going to so much as lay eyes upon the interior of the Emperor’s bedchamber.

Deret’s gaze crossed Csevet’s as he looked back across the room, and Csevet raised his eyebrows. Oh yes. The note. Deret nodded, then tipped his head at Horalar and shook his head. If that was opaque, he wasn’t sure what else he could-- but Csevet made a nod in understanding, and looked back over at the Empress as she spoke next.

“--difficulty of managing the scheduling, of course,” she was saying. “But if we asked her--”

Deret went over to Cala. “Had Kiru aught of note to relate?” he asked quietly.

Cala shook his head. “No,” he said, very quietly, “but I think Aisava successfully gave Herself the rundown on the care and handling issue, if thou understandest me.”

Deret frowned at him a moment, trying to parse that, but Cala mimed pushing up his left sleeve, and Deret thought of Himself’s scars there, and realization washed across him. “Ah,” he said. “Good.” He hadn’t realized how much he was dreading giving her that talk himself.

Horalar, standing slightly behind and to one side of Deret, craned his neck to look at Cala quizzically. Cala glanced at him, then looked at Deret, who rolled his eyes very slightly, knowing the man couldn’t see. The corner of Cala’s mouth pulled to one side, and he turned to look at Himself, who had settled himself on the other side of the desk from Aisava and the Zhasan, and was reading over some papers.

“Art prepared to mind the chamber?” Deret murmured. Cala regarded him contemplatively.

“That’s up to Himself, isn’t it?” he asked. Deret nodded, but then rolled his eyes a little toward Horalar, behind himself, then made a bug-eyed expression. “Mm,” Cala said, nodding slightly.

When it came time, the Emperor did look between Cala and Beshelar briefly, and said to Beshelar, “We presume you have some matters to discuss with Lieutenant Horalar? In the meantime, Csethiro Zhasan has expressed that she would be more comfortable with the maza attending the bedchamber, for tonight.”

“We had expected as much,” Beshelar said. “Lieutenant Horalar will be departing around midnight, and Cala and ourself may switch places sometime after that.” He had heard of Telimezh’s discomfiture the previous morning, but more importantly that Herself had been unprepared for it, and was most eager not to be present for a repeat. “But we can make the point of switching back before morning, should my lady’s sensibilities be offended by a soldier seeing her in her night clothes.”

Himself nodded. “You are a nohecharis, not a soldier,” he said, putting his hand on Deret’s shoulder. “But she doesn’t know you, as yet.”

“Of course,” Deret said. It struck him that Edrehasivar was trying to apologize. He made himself smile, though it came out a little wry, and leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m not offended,” he said, quietly.

Edrehasivar bit his lip, and smiled back at him, squeezing his shoulder warmly before releasing it. “Hast no reason to be, Deret, thou know’st how I value thee,” so low and warm Deret couldn’t help but blush like a besotted fool at him, just for a moment, before remembering Lt. Horalar stood there drinking it all in like every moment of it was a gift to him personally.

What rumors would he spread of this ? The thought sent a chill like water down Deret’s spine, and he pulled himself back under control and turned to face the lieutenant.

“Well,” he said. “In that case. We do have a great deal to discuss, Lieutenant.”

In the antechamber, Lt. Horalar immediately asked, “Do you and the other nohecharei have a code, to talk without speaking?”

Beshelar frowned at him. “What ever do you mean?”

“When you first came in, you and Lieutenant Telimezh seemed to have a conversation with almost no words out loud, and then when you spoke to Cala, most of it seemed to be ear twitches and eyebrow movements, and we couldn’t follow at all.” Horalar’s words fairly gushed out of him in enthusiasm.

“No,” Beshelar said, “it’s not a code, we just know one another very well, and were largely continuing existing conversations rather than starting new ones. It is important that we convey information without speaking, as there are many times when overt reminders of our presence would be an intrusion.”

“You all must be very close,” Horalar said, a little admiringly.

“We are merely closely attentive,” Beshelar said. “Quite by necessity-- we hardly spend any time with our seconds, and have little opportunity to know them well, yet we manage to understand one another because we have so much of an interest in common.”

“Ah,” Horalar said, but he didn’t seem convinced.

Beshelar talked for a little while about the practical aspects of the job, never having any privacy or free time, the importance of promptness, the kinds of self-defense techniques one must brush up on, how part of his motivation to seek out a third pair of nohecharei was that he felt he and Telimezh had inadequate time to keep their reflexes sharp through time in the practice yards. He made it sound as dry and unappealing as possible, which was something he was aware he had a unique talent for.

To his credit, Horalar managed to look attentive through all of it, nodding seriously and occasionally interjecting in agreement. It was an impressive performance, and Beshelar almost reconsidered his first snap judgement. But then he thought of Telimezh, and how he’d told the truth, that he hadn’t spent a lot of time in the man’s company-- but he’d elided the truth a little, he did know him, in all of these shared spaces and by the information they exchanged. In a tavern he wouldn’t know which drink to buy the man, but where it counted, he had a pretty good understanding of the man’s thought processes. And Telimezh been unimpressed by Horalar.

The confirmation of Telimezh’s impression that Beshelar was looking for came along promptly enough. Beshelar had stopped talking, letting Horalar collect himself to ask a question, and into the momentary silence, barely muffled by the door, the Zhasan cried out throatily, “Oh! Maia! Oh--”  in a manner that left it entirely unmistakable why she would be calling out.

Horalar lost no time, but went and pressed his ear to the door. Beshelar drew himself up and stared at him in utter disgust.

The Zhasan let out a shivering cry, and, quieter, the Emperor was saying something muffled but fervent. Horalar listened intently, then straightened up and noticed Beshelar’s regard.

“You have to make sure no one is under attack,” Horalar said, attempting sincerity. “You can’t deny, that first sound was fairly alarming.”

“Only if you don’t have any idea what married people do,” Beshelar said. “Fortunately, we grew up in a large family, so we are aware of how babies are made.”

His frosty indignation was actually helpful; were he here on his own, the clear sounds of coitus probably would have embarrassed him. As it was, he felt some pity for Cala, who had put on a brave face about it but was likely discomfited. At the least, he’d been warned.

“If you do not understand,” Beshelar said, holding steadily to his temper, “that possibly the single most important part of this job is that we not only protect the Emperor’s body, but also his peace of mind, and so we must above all else never participate in malicious or salacious gossip about him, then we do not believe we could possibly explain it to you.”

“Well, the old Emperor would’ve had anyone who gossipped executed or banished,” Horalar said. “But this one doesn’t seem to be as fond of that sort of thing.”

“Were we stupid enough,” Beshelar said through his teeth, “to offer you this job, and it reached our ears that you had been gossipping about the Emperor’s personal life, it would not be left up to the Emperor, but we would see to your discipline ourself. Perhaps it would be for the best for you to reconsider your interest in this position.”

Horalar paled somewhat. “Oh-- but I only--” he said.

“We don’t care,” Beshelar said. But now he was faced with an awkward conundrum: let this unsuitable person wander unattended around the Emperor’s personal suite of rooms, or abandon his post guarding the Emperor to see this nuisance out?

Properly he should duck his head into the room and let Cala know he was stepping away, but he most earnestly did not want to open the bedchamber door at this moment. One might think, based on Beshelar’s prior lifetime experience of overhearing such things, that what they’d heard would indicate the ending of the interlude, but even now he heard the Zhasan make another shivering sort of moan, just loud enough to hear through the door; either she was the theatrical type, or the Emperor was unusually thorough, and Beshelar reluctantly had to conclude it must be the latter.

Normally, he knew he would be embarrassed, but his indignation fortified him; he was blushless as the snow. “We think it best you go now,” he said. “We’ll see you out.”

Lt. Horalar showed a tiny amount of common sense, and went meekly enough with Beshelar. They made it as far as the corridor near the dining room, and the light was still burning so Beshelar ducked his head in the doorway to see what could possibly be afoot this late. It wasn’t terribly late, but it was after most of the staff’s dismissal time.

Csevet was sitting at the end of the dining room table, picking through several stacks of paperwork. He heard them and glanced up in time to catch Beshelar’s eye.

“Ah,” he said, setting down the letter he’d been reading. “Is aught afoot?”

“Lieutenant Horalar was just leaving,” Beshelar said.

Csevet nodded, and looked back down at his work. Deret continued to the door, unsmilingly gestured Lt. Horalar out, and stepped through the door after him. There was a solitary guardsman standing watch at the grate, and he unlocked it so Horalar could pass, then poked his head in.

“Aught amiss?” he asked.

“No,” Beshelar said, “as long as Lt. Horalar can find his way from here.”

The guardsman saluted, and locked the grate again. Beshelar went back inside, and made his way up to the dining room.

“We thought he was staying until after midnight,” Csevet said mildly, looking up to see Beshelar leaned in the doorway.

“He pressed his ear against the door to listen when Csethiro Zhasan cried out in passion in the bedchamber,” Deret said.

Csevet made a face like he’d smelled something unpleasant. “I thought he was a little too interested,” he said.

Deret nodded. “Telimezh implied as much,” he said. “Not someone I wanted to work with.”

“It’s just as well you didn’t waste any more time on him, then,” Csevet said, and wiped his pen clean, closed it up neatly, and pushed to his feet. “Had you a moment to talk, then?” he asked, giving Deret an indirect look, somewhat under his lashes-- shy, perhaps, Beshelar realized.

Deret noticed belatedly that his face had curled itself into a smile, and quickly mastered it, and himself. “I-- am away from my post,” he said, “I need to get back.”

“Ah,” Csevet said graciously.

“But,” Deret blurted. “I only need to be in the antechamber, Cala is in the bedchamber itself.” He hesitated, pulled his jerkin hem back level where it had crept slightly out of true. “If thou didst want-- to talk-- we could--” He stopped, and glanced up.

“I can accompany thee that far,” Csevet said, smiling faintly, and gathered up his papers.



Beshelar seemed nervous, and Csevet was trying to decide whether that were a good sign or not. He had not entered into any new arrangements since his change in rank, and had resolved that it was best to approach any such negotiations cautiously-- but Beshelar was exempt from most of the reasons for caution, by virtue of his similar rank.

He accompanied Beshelar back to his duty post hiding a smile, because the nohecharis had seen him pick up the case he used to transport his papers, and had been horrified at him carrying it himself and had insisted on taking it for him, even though it had been several days since lifting it had caused any pain.

With the case properly stowed under a side table, and Beshelar having gone and pressed his ear against the door for a moment, they sat in the chairs by the room’s far door. “All seems well in there,” Beshelar said, “I can hear them talking quietly.”

“I’d expected them to be asleep,” Csevet said.

Beshelar made a wry face. “They’re young,” he said, “and apparently have a lot of energy.”

Csevet snorted. “So are we,” he said, and was rewarded with a fantastically attractive blush across the tips of Deret’s ears and the tops of his cheeks. It was beautifully alluring, and he wanted to bite the tips of those ears where they were pink. He kept being teased, though, by a hint of a memory, of touching Deret’s jaw, of kissing him, but he couldn’t think when it could possibly have happened. It had mashed itself up, in his memory, with Deret shoving him into the wall, and so, guiltily, he now had a vivid, but false, sensory memory of Deret throwing him into a wall violently and then kissing him tenderly, and it was extremely compelling and rather unlike Csevet’s usual more restrained and sensible style. He collected himself, and said, “So-- I take it thou’rt amenable to the idea, at least? Or hast thou brought me here to let me down gently?”

Oddly, Deret paled, and then blushed again. “I,” he said, fumblingly. “That is-- well--”

Disappointment slid its cold way through Csevet’s midsection. Beshelar was trying to let him down gently. “Oh,” he said. “It’s-- if you’ve thought better of it--”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Deret said, the dam that had been holding back his speech seeming to break. “I’m-- flattered, and intrigued, but--” The dam clogged itself back up again.

Well it wasn’t quite a rejection, yet, but what was it? “But what?” Csevet asked. “Hast changed thy mind about our relative ranks?”

“No,” Deret said. “No, I-- it’s that I don’t-- entirely understand--” He’d gone deeply pink, but it was unhappy and not nearly so alluring. “What it is thou’rt-- interested in.”

Csevet couldn’t help raising his eyebrows. “What I’m--” He shook his head slightly. “Well, I’m not asking thee to marry me, all I was proposing was that we might strike up a closer acquaintance.”

Deret kept changing color, and his breath was coming fast-- he was in genuine emotional distress over this, Csevet realized, and he hadn’t thought this would be so very high-stakes. “But why?” he asked, finally.

Csevet blinked, at that one. “Why,” he repeated blankly. Deret just nodded, unhelpfully. “Why do people ever enter into closer acquaintances?” he said. “For-- for fun, for companionship, for something to do. Because it’s something people do, Deret.”

“No,” Deret said, paling again. “Why me ?” Csevet just stared at him, lost, and finally Deret went on, “Why wouldst thou want me ?”

Csevet had to be missing something, but he couldn’t possibly understand what. “Why would--” He shook his head slightly. “Because I like thee?”

Nobody likes me,” Deret said, with a sharpness Csevet instantly recognized was misery.

“I already told thee that I did,” Csevet said, all of his brewing irritation and nervousness and fear melting away in the face of that misery. “Deret-- Cala likes thee. Telimezh likes thee. Echelo likes thee. Azhalet likes thee, or he’d not bait you as he does. Kiru likes thee. Himself likes thee. Nearly everyone who knows thee likes thee, Beshelar.”

Deret flushed again. Csevet wanted to put his hands on the man’s cheeks and calm him down, but knew that wouldn’t work. “Likes me-- ‘tis one thing for,” he waved a hand, “for work-a-day things, for camaraderie in getting through one’s tasks, but-- for an-- an affair,” it seemed difficult for him to get the word out, “it seems entirely another thing, and I don’t-- I don’t have anything to offer thee, Csevet, I’m not-- witty, or-- I don’t know things like-- I’m not clever, I can-- I can barely write , I can’t-- thou know’st, I have no free time or--”

Csevet shook his head. “Deret,” he said. “When I said I liked thee, I meant I liked thee, truly, I’m not interviewing thee for a position. I know thee already.”

“I can’t even promise thee that I’d be good at-- at-- in bed,” Deret went on, heedless. “If that’s what it is thou’rt after-- I can’t promise I’d give you what you wanted there either. Because I don’t know! I’ve never done anything thou couldst not do to thyself.” He folded his arms tightly across his chest, shoulders hunched.

Talking wasn’t going to solve this. Csevet stood up, and slowly and deliberately paced over to stand in front of Deret’s chair, freeing his forearm from the sling as he walked. He took Deret’s face between both of his hands, which finally made the man go quiet and still, and looked down into his eyes for a long moment. “None of it is this difficult,” he said gently, and leaned down to press his mouth softly against Beshelar’s.



Cala had been mentally preparing himself for this for some time now, and had pondered a number of different approaches he could take. He’d thought he was ready, really.

But the reality of the Emperor and the Empress, on the other side of a set of bedcurtains-- at least they were still winter-weight, Cala thought a little wildly, for all it helped, instead of the filmy translucent style more popular in summer-- having sweetly funny, slightly-awkward conversations marked by genuine affection, that led into breathless sounds of kissing and such-- and from thence to absolutely unmistakable sounds of effort, passion, arousal-- well, by the time Csethiro stuttered her way through a climax, Cala had figured out that there was really no way to just not pay attention.

He’d asked Kiru, briefly, and she’d been amused and said it was perfectly charming and harmless, but he had known, even then, that she just wasn’t fazed by that sort of thing. He had been hoping he too could regard it all with detached, vaguely fond amusement, but it was just-- well, it was awkward, and kind of arousing, and he wasn’t having nearly the luck he’d hoped at not being affected by it.

The couple fell into breathless silence, and Cala composed himself.

“In truth I had meant to experiment more,” Csethiro said, with a rustle of bedclothes like she’d just sat up, “but by the gods, I am so fond of that specific thing, Maia--”

“I like it too,” he said. “We can still experiment, but there’s no harm in always using the same warm-up, is there?”

There was so much playful warmth in Himself’s tone, he never sounded like that in public, and it was like a direct line to the parts of Cala that enjoyed things, listening to him sounding like that.

“Oh, Maia,” Csethiro said. She was still out of breath. “Thou hast a clever tongue.”

“I can safely say no one has ever accused me of that before,” Himself laughed.

There was a rustle, as of movement, and then Csethiro said in a soft murmur, fervently affectionate, “Mayhap thou wert saving it for me all along, my love.”

Cala turned and pressed his forehead against the wall. He had overheard all kinds of things already, in his tenure as nohecharis, and had become rather good at tuning out the boring, disregarding the embarrassing, and politely pretending not to hear the intimate, but this was an entirely new level, and there was a part of his mind that really wanted to eavesdrop, making it difficult to simply absent his attention as he normally did.

He managed to tune out once they weren’t talking, at least, though despite himself he was still paying enough attention to note that they were at this much longer than he’d expected. He’d had a few lovers, male and female, and he’d been serious enough about his spiritual practice for a while now that he’d stopped having any interest to spare in that sort of thing, but clearly that was just a function of distraction and not that he had genuinely become too spiritual to pay that much heed to his body. He hadn’t really believed that, but it would have been nice.

No, he was definitely taking too prurient an interest in all this for that to be the case. But he managed to tune it out enough to at least nominally perform his function of nohecharis, and eventually they shivered into heavy breathing and then quiet, and then they were just talking a little bit, which was again hard to ignore because Edrehasivar sounded so soft and happy and completely unlike his daytime self, but Cala managed not to absorb too much of it.

He waited still a bit longer, after they stopped their soft talking, and made sure they were both really asleep, before he got up and went to the door. Normally he’d wait a couple of hours, but he wanted a chance to talk to this potential third, and also wanted a chance to get a good break before he’d have to come back in again, and this had surely been enough time for Beshelar to get something to eat.

He crept to the door, and very cautiously, very slowly and quietly, unlatched the door handle, leaning on the door so it wouldn’t pop-- he didn’t want to wake the sleeping couple, who were probably not yet deeply asleep. Only once the latch had disengaged did he very slowly ease the door open, and slide himself through before pulling it closed again.

He turned around and instead of Beshelar and whatever the new recruit’s name was, he was confronted with Beshelar and Csevet, each sitting in one of the two chairs at the far end of the room, both very flushed and flustered-looking. They were carefully not looking at one another, which meant that they were both staring intently at Cala, unnervingly so.

Cala leaned against the door he’d been easing shut. “Uh,” he said. “What happened to-- what was his name?” Part of him instantly knew what the strange dynamic between the two men had to be, but it wasn’t telling the part of his mind that made conversation about it. He blinked at them as he tried to put it together. They had a very clear look of-- something.

Beshelar’s startled-innocent-guilty-something expression went dark with disapproval. “We threw him out,” he said, “when he pressed his ear against the door the better to hear the Zhasan’s exclamations of passion.”

“Ah,” Cala said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Well, then your suspicions of him were correct.”

“Indeed,” Beshelar said.

It suddenly connected for Cala: Csevet and Beshelar had absolutely been-- intertwined, before he’d come out the door-- their clothing was subtly disarranged, Csevet’s hair was slightly mussed, they were both breathing hard and a little glassy-eyed-- well, this was surprising, but not entirely unexpected now that Cala thought on it. “And then Mer Aisava came to discuss it with you,” he said encouragingly, wondering if Beshelar would lie.

“No,” Beshelar said, “Mer Aisava and ourself were discussing something else.”

Csevet slid a sidelong look at Beshelar, perhaps concerned he’d give too much away, but said nothing.

Cala supposed he wasn’t owed an explanation. “We see,” he said. He was seized with a desire to run straight to Kiru for her insight in dissecting this new development; it could possibly explain their earlier altercation, somehow. But he was, of course, not only serious about his duty, but also close in friendship to Beshelar, who deserved better than to be gossipped about. He cleared his throat, collecting himself. “We only stepped out for a moment to compose ourself. We will leave you to resume your discussion.”

Beshelar looked alarmed. “Compose,” he said, and then flushed bright red. “Oh no. It sounded bad enough from out here.”

“It’s all well for Kiru,” Cala said, unable to keep from reacting to the recognition. “She just doesn’t-- concern herself with such things. But it’s. Well, I feel a great deal more sympathy for Telimezh.”

Beshelar grimaced. “I’m not looking forward to that,” he said. “I’m not-- good at-- not being awkward about things.”

“They won’t remember thour’t even present,” Cala said, “so worry not except about keeping thy own reactions under control.” He sighed, and steeled himself. “I’ll go back in.”

“No,” Beshelar said, “it’s thy turn to take a break. Just remember to come in before dawn to trade, to spare Herself’s sensibilities.”

“Thou wert in the midst of a discussion,” Cala said. “I can wait somewhat longer.”

“I ought to be abed,” Csevet said. “We can resume our discussion another time.” And he gave Beshelar an innocent enough look, casting his eyelashes down against his cheeks a moment, almost coquettish. He was very, very pretty; Cala couldn’t blame Beshelar for his choice at all.

“Mayhap tomorrow night,” Beshelar said, and stood.

Cala thought of protesting again, but gave it up as a bad job; Beshelar was hard to argue with in the best of circumstances, and Cala himself was still somewhat flustered. He stood aside, and Beshelar lifted the latch with commendable silence, letting himself in.

Csevet stood immediately and went to retrieve his document case from beneath a side table. Cala cleared his throat, and Csevet looked up warily.

“So,” Cala said.

Csevet stood patiently, clutching his paperwork, dumb and wary as a beast of burden. Indeed, there was something mulish about his expression. No, he wasn’t going to volunteer to explain anything.

Cala considered his next words carefully. What did he even want to say? “Is this what you and Deret have been dancing around this whole time?”

Csevet’s ears flattened slightly, but it looked like annoyance, not distress. “No,” he said.

Cala turned that over in his mind for a moment; it wasn’t much of an answer, and it wasn’t all that reassuring, really. “I know how Himself relies on you,” he settled on saying, finally. “We all do. Rely on you, that is. I--” It was hard to explain it. “I trust you, Csevet, to know what you’re doing, with this.”

That surprised Aisava, and his ears flicked. “I’m not sure thou should’st,” he said, “but I am honored by it nonetheless.”

Chapter Text



“A son, at last,” said the courtier, an older woman who had been a friend of Csethiro’s mother, “your father must be so delighted,” and Csethiro pasted on a smile and said, “Oh, yes, he is so delighted to finally have a child who is worth something,” but the woman wasn’t really listening, so Csethiro was spared explaining herself.

She was only a woman, after all, and thus, only the Empress, which honestly was a somewhat disposable position, really, and she had only been Empress a matter of a couple of days and it was already quite overshadowed within the annals of her family’s accomplishments. For her stepmother had been brought to bed, and at last her father had a son, and Csethiro hadn’t been sure how she would feel to have a sibling young enough to be her child, and was doubly unsure now that it was a son and she and her sisters were revealed to have been utterly worthless this entire time.

She shouldn’t be bitter; this was how it ever was. Daughters were expensive, and she knew her own dowry had been considerable, and her father was personally well-aware of how fragile the boost in status could be, since a single generation ago the Ceredada had also supplied the Emperor with his first bride and had it come to naught. (At the time, he’d only been the Emperor’s heir, but the distinction was minor.)

The boy’s birth did mean all her sisters were staying gathered; they had all come in for the wedding but Csethiro hadn’t had any time to see them. The older two, both married, lived a distance away, and she’d thought she wouldn’t have time to catch up with them before they left, but now they were going to stay for a week or two, for their new brother’s naming ceremony. Csethiro had insisted they move into her new apartment as visitors, and now the place was much merrier, as her oldest sister had two children, and the next had one, and all of them were helping her apartment become instantly much more lived-in and cozier.

She was going to have Maia to dinner tonight, to meet them all, and wasn’t sure she’d adequately prepared him. She was utterly delighted to be able to exclude her stepmother from it, as the woman was naturally still in confinement.

At the moment, she was attending a small exhibition in one of the galleries of the Unthelienese Court, one of the innumerable court events she truly needed a secretary to help her keep track of. She would have forgotten about this, but Vedero had sent her a pneumatic to remind her. One of their friends, a woman who had managed to get herself apprenticed to one of the master painters, had a few works in the exhibition, and it was the sort of thing Vedero encouraged. Csethiro had come to buy one of the pictures, but belatedly realized that while as an unmarried woman, she could have done something like that unremarked, she could not simply do so as the Empress. Instead she made herself a note in her pocket-book to write to the artist and ask to commission something, instead.

She had an appointment just before luncheon with Csevet Aisava and the likeliest of the candidates to be her secretary, and it would not be a moment too soon. She finished her circuit of the exhibition, and with it her first concrete observation that as the Empress, she was no longer going to be able to go to these sorts of things to actually enjoy them. She’d barely been allowed to see any of the art, so many people had needed to see her and speak to her and observe her and be seen to see her and so on and so forth.

She’d known it would be like this, but knowing it and experiencing it were, of course, different. She maintained her pleasant demeanor and left as unobtrusively as she could manage, and went back to her apartment to play with her niece and nephews and wait for Aisava.

The candidate arrived slightly early, and was shown in by Danelo the housekeeper. Her name was Odaru Culezhin, and she was a merchant’s daughter, about twenty-two in age, unmarried, and had gained the attention of the Archduchess Vedero by working as a research assistant to a noblewoman who had been putting together a compendium of historical geneaologies. The project was completed, and Min Culezhin had gone back to working for her father, but had corresponded with the Archduchess in search of another project she could help with, finding that she missed the research.

Vedero had confided to Csethiro that Min Culezhin was also eager to escape her father’s authority, as he would naturally require her to make a decent marriage, and she had absolutely no interest in marrying, and was possibly marno but discreet about it. Csethiro thought all of these were positive attributes; she would hate to lose a secretary to marriage to a man who wouldn’t let her work and have to replace her in a hurry, but she would also hate to think that she was preventing a woman who wanted to marry from doing so.

It struck her that this was the sort of thing Maia would think of, remembering his dismay about the nohecharei, and she resolved to talk to him about it.

Odaru Culezhin was small and round, with small nimble hands, and was dressed sensibly but fashionably, with her hair caught up in a sleek neat twist and dressed with a plain but high-quality set of dyed bone tashin sticks. She had a faint hint of goblin blood that showed in her pale silvery skin and amber-orange eyes, but her hair was white, and the effect was that she was unsettlingly pretty.

One of the first things she said was to enquire whether the position required her to be fluent in Barizhin, or merely conversant. “We read it better than we speak it,” she said, “and while we write well in it, it takes us some time and thought to compose. But that could be remedied, with adequate practice.”

“We… did not think to require any Barizhin at all,” Csethiro admitted, “so that is unlikely to prove to be an issue.”

“Oh,” Min Culezhin said. “We had thought the posting mentioned it. Well, we would practice it, at any rate. Surely because of your husband you would have dealings with the Barizhan, in some degree.”

“That is a good thought,” Csethiro said. She herself was not fluent in Barizhin, but she could carry on brief inconsequential conversations. She didn’t know how much of it Maia spoke, and hadn’t thought to ask.

Well, Mer Aisava would know, and almost as if her thoughts had summoned him, he appeared at the door of the receiving room she was using. She stood to greet him delightedly, and bade Danelo bring them tea all around, and they settled themselves and Aisava produced a small notebook upon which he had clearly written a list.

Csethiro paid attention to the questions he asked, and noted that he wasn’t just ticking off the completed ones, he was making abbreviated notes next to them depending on her answer. But she also felt that there was a parallel conversation going on, beneath or above the one she could hear; the two of them made frequent eye contact and were clearly measuring one another based on criteria she knew nothing about.

At length, Csevet thanked Odaru, and they both looked to Csethiro, and she understood that she was to dismiss them, so she did. Odaru rose and departed, and Csevet lingered a moment, looking over his list. “We think she is an excellent candidate,” he said, “and would recommend her without reservation. If my lady would still like to review other candidates, we have no more free time today but could make an appointment for tomorrow.”

“You think we should review other candidates?” Csethiro asked. “Or do you think she will be sufficient?”

Csevet considered it for a moment, then said, “We think she will be sufficient. If you have any hesitation, we would be perfectly happy to continue helping you, but if you have no reason not to, we would advise you to offer Min Culezhin the position.”

Curious, Csethiro asked, “How many candidates did Edrehasivar consider for your position?”

Csevet gave her a strange little smile. “None,” he said, and with that he took his leave. Csethiro went to be dressed for her next appointment with that echoing around her awareness, working out its corners, and thought, perhaps the strangest thing about the unique phenomenon that was Maia was his luck.

But it wasn’t luck, she thought, as she sat at a writing-desk while her edocharo redid her hair, writing an offer letter for Min Culezhin. It was more, perhaps, his faith. He would set his faith in things working out, and-- no, she realized, it wasn’t that he believed and things became true. There was nothing mystical about it at all.

No, she eventually realized: it was that he considered things, and when they were clear to him, he quietly made a decision, and set his course based upon that contemplation. And so it looked as though things just worked themselves out, because he made no stern commands and did not seem to exert his will upon anything in particular, and yet his choices so often came to bear fruit. It was all quiet work that he had done, to inform himself and to see his way to a choice. It wasn’t at all that he blindly believed, or that he was lucky.

But it looked like luck.

She wondered what he had seen to make him choose her, what he had seen to make him realize he could make her an ally. She had certainly given him no indication that she would be any good to him at all, thanks to Csoru’s uselessness. In truth, of course Csethiro should have known better than to ever listen to Csoru, but in her defense, while she’d known Csoru was an idiot, she hadn’t realized quite how malicious an idiot she was. And it wasn’t like there were many people who had actually met the new Emperor whose impressions could be sifted through for information, either; Csoru had simply had the only information on offer, and it was hard to gauge how tainted it was by her uselessness and idiot bias.

Csethiro stood to allow her edocharei to dress her, then returned and sealed Odaru’s offer letter, and as she pressed her seal into the wax she smiled at it. One of her wedding-gifts from Edrehasivar had been a seal of her own, for which she had been allowed input into the design: it was a Drazhadeise cat, couchant, with an unsheathed sunblade resting along its side, the hilt supported on its front paws. She wore it on her forefinger and had immediately become enormously fond of using it.

She gave the letter to Danelo, who would see it handed off to the pneumatic operators, and then went to her luncheon, which was an event Vedero was hosting as she sought to establish her informal society of academically-minded women a little more formally. The invitation list was broad-ranging, and it was a step up from the intimate salons they’d been holding on a rotating basis through the parlors of various of the more powerful women in the society. Csethiro understood that one of the major projects of her tenure as Empress was going to be establishing this as more of a social movement of like-minded women, and attempting to expand it across class boundaries; as it stood, lower-class women were more free to work, but even less recognized, and upper-class women were virtually imprisoned by the whims of their male kin. If they could establish a broad-ranging social movement to emancipate women in general, they could achieve a great deal of progress, especially given the recent upheavals in government following Edrehasivar’s ascension and establishment.

Csethiro was dressed conservatively; she was aware that a lot of this movement’s success would be predicated on it not seeming too revolutionary. She would have to keep a fine balance between genuine change and un-alarming, soothing traditionalism. As she gathered herself to leave the apartment, she paused and considered that perhaps she should look into whatever the meditation techniques were that Maia used: she could really do with some clarity of insight into all this.

 

The luncheon was a lot, it was a lot of people, it was a lot of noise, it was a lot of discussion. Vedero looked calm and collected and poised through all of it, and Csethiro did her best, though it wore on her more than she had anticipated, being the highest-ranked person present and always subject to scrutiny. She’d been raised for this sort of thing her whole life, and had naively thought herself prepared, but it was more intense than she had anticipated.

When she returned to her apartments, her sisters had already begun to gather, and her niece Arano ran up to her in delight and demanded to be picked up, and it was only just in time her sister Hazhiro, the girl’s mother, caught the child and wiped off her hands before she could ruin Csethiro’s heavily white-embroidered jacket.

“I think it’s the white that’s going to do me in,” Csethiro said, and shed the jacket before taking the girl. Hazhiro took the jacket in return, and went to find Csethrio’s edocharei.

Csethiro held Arano, who was just around two years old, as the edocharei hastily changed her outfit, and the oldest of them, who had been her lady’s-maid before and knew the family well, gently adorned Arano with some of the more durable pieces of Csethiro’s jewelry, which delighted the child endlessly.

The nephews, one of whom belonged to Hazhiro and the other of whom belonged to Csethiro’s sister Ramiro, were both still babes in arms, though Ramiro’s son was on the verge of toddling now. But with all five of the Ceredin sisters together, even if three of them now had new surnames, the noise level in the apartment grew rapidly. Csethiro had thought perhaps she’d wish she had some time alone, after the hectic luncheon, but she was so fond of all of her sisters that she discovered that it was, instead, soothing, and the chaos was pleasantly diverting, as Arano ran around shedding priceless gems and everyone had to scramble to retrieve them.

Csethiro was able to dress less traditionally, as well; it was a formal dinner, of course, because the Emperor was attending, but it was really Maia and he would not judge her. There were some other dignitaries attending, and Csethiro had dutifully considered them all and made seating arrangements and such, but by now she had forgotten who they even were and what was meant to be discussed. So she bade her edocharei dress her in a stylish and slightly-daring modern costume, with no deference whatsoever to her station beyond the white embroidery on the jacket.

She had commissioned herself a trouser suit but did not yet dare wear it where anyone would see. One of these days, on a suitable occasion, she was going to wear it, but not less than a week into her tenure as Empress. That was too much, she judged.

Maia came early, and she received him delightedly, going out to the antechamber herself so that she could take him by the hands and greet him fondly. It also let her judge his mood, and steal a kiss, before subjecting him to the chaos of her family.

He looked fleetingly tired, until he raised his eyes and saw her. A smile lightened his face, then, which was gratifying to see, and when she stole the kiss she’d been planning on, he closed his eyes sweetly, yielding to her just a little.

“Husband,” she murmured, “I ought to have warned thee, my sisters and I in full cry are rather an intense crowd. I apologize in advance, but I fear they will not remain overawed of thee for long.”

He smiled at her. “I will endure it, for thy sake,” and a fond twist of his lips let her know he was kidding. He was so sweet and pretty she had to steal a second kiss from him, and he let her. As she released him, she glanced over his shoulder and saw that Lt. Beshelar was watching them with an oddly contemplative look, not so disapproving as he normally looked, so she gave him a wink and was rewarded with a startled dip of his ears and pinkening of their tips.

Maia caught the wink, and said, “Don’t tease my nohecharei,” and then Arano came running out, clearly meaning to attach herself to Csethiro, but when Maia looked down at her she recoiled in shock at his unfamiliar face and hid herself behind Csethiro’s skirt in terrified dismay.

“Oh, love,” Csethiro said, retrieving the child and picking her up, “come and meet thy uncle, now! I know, he is terribly tall, but come up and see him, it’s not so bad from up here.”

Arano clung to Csethiro a moment, and Maia looked discomfited, concerned. Csethiro knew some of it was Maia’s adornment, as he was fairly well-bedecked, all in opals tonight, which gave him a striking beauty indeed, but some of it was certainly his coloring; Hazhiro lived out on an estate in a part of the country where there were virtually no goblins, and Arano had probably never seen anyone up close with dark skin. But as Csethiro had expected, her familiar arms helped, and in a moment Arano felt brave enough to turn and look curiously at Maia.

“Say good evening ,” Csethiro prompted, in a whisper.

“Good evening,” Arano said, shyly and indistinctly.

“Good evening,” Maia answered back solemnly.

“Tell him thy name,” Csethiro prompted, still whispering.

“My name is Arano,” Arano said.

That got a little twinkle of delight out of Maia, and he answered, with a small conspiratorial smile, “And I am thy uncle Maia.”

“It seems best that we forego the formal presentation, at present,” Csethiro said, and Maia grinned at her.

“I think so,” he said. “Now, Arano, how old art thou?”

Arano looked uncertainly at Csethiro, who held up two fingers. She turned back to Maia with two fingers held up, but she clearly wasn’t sure what it meant.

“Two,” Maia said. “Art thou two years old?”

Hazhiro appeared in the doorway. “Did she--” She stopped as Csethiro turned slightly so that Arano was visible in her arms, and then she looked past, noticed Maia, and straightened in alarm before abruptly prostrating herself in the old-fashioned greeting. “Serenity,” she said.

“Please,” Maia said, in that way he had where he looked pained when people treated him like the Emperor, “please, rise,” because Arano had seen her mother’s reaction and was now whimpering in alarm. “It’s fine,” he said, “it’s fine, see?”

Hazhiro climbed to her feet, but still wouldn’t look at him. “Serenity, this is my sister Hazhiro, who we made such a fool of at her first Winternight ball,” Csethiro said, to tease her, and then said, more formally, “I should say, Dach’osmerrem Hazhiro Verreman, mother of Arano here, and also of Vidra, who is ten months old now and around here somewhere.”

“Tell us our child did not smudge grubby fingers all over everyone already,” Hazhiro said, daring to look up a little.

“She’s a delight,” Maia said. Hazhiro came forward and accepted Arano, who was reaching for her. The child settled herself, then turned and looked back at Maia.

“Uncle Maia,” she said. Hazhiro looked alarmed, and Csethiro laughed at her.

“That’s how he introduced himself,” she said.

“She is two,” Maia said, “we think there are allowances in etiquette for two-year-old tongues.” He glanced over his shoulder, and then added, “We should caution you, if you let her wander too much she will wind up attached to Lieutenant Beshelar, that is generally what happens when there are unsecured small children.”

“It’s some sort of principle of magnetism, we believe,” the maza, Cala, said a little dreamily. “Though we’re unclear on whether he attracts them, or they attract him, or whether it’s mutual.”

“We are powerless to stop it,” Lt. Beshelar said, affecting lofty dignity.

“What unsecured small children are there, normally, in your presence?” Csethiro asked, as they moved into the apartment.

“Ino Drazhin,” Maia said. “And sometimes Mireän. Though she is not as small, she still is not immune to Beshelar’s magnetic force. But Ino cannot be kept from climbing him, if he does not pick her up.”

“She is three,” Lt. Beshelar said, indignant. “One does not leave a three-year-old to walk on her own when she is tired. You all are monsters.”

Csethiro was looking at him, and so she watched him remove all the animation from his face and become a wooden soldier again as they passed into the room where most of the family was already gathered. He traded looks with Cala Athmaza, and Cala took a position beside the door while the lieutenant followed Maia into the room. Csethiro wondered how they decided those things so that it took only one glance to confirm it.

Maia had also lost much of the animation in his face, as if pulling on a mask, in the face of so many people he did not know, and Csethiro regretted it. But, without her prating father and shallow stepmother to color this first massed impression, she could dare to hope that in time he wouldn’t think of her sisters as people he had to be Edrehasivar for. In deference to his formal aspect, Csethiro affected a nearly-serious version of her Empress persona, and very regally performed the formal introductions of all of her sisters, and the one husband present. Hazhiro’s husband had gone home, as their estate could not be left unattended long, but Ramiro’s husband was an agreeable enough young man, and they lived nearby. The two younger sisters, Malino and Imelzhu, still lived with their father and stepmother.

As predicted, it took less than a quarter of an hour before somehow Arano was ensconced securely in Lt. Beshelar’s arms, watching the proceedings in considerable delight. Beshelar was doing his best to still look like a wooden soldier, but gently refused everyone’s attempts to remove her, and when no one else was looking, Csethiro could see he was having conversations with the child.

A round of pre-dinner drinks was poured all around, and Maia had even taken some; Csethiro had noticed he rarely drank much, and she hoped he wasn’t just trying to please her. Lt. Beshelar stayed largely within arm’s reach of him at all times, made easier when he took a seat, and refused to take a seat himself, instead standing with his back against the wall and Arano still happily in his arms.

The other guests began to arrive, and with some astonishment at her past self, Csethiro remembered that among the invitees were both the Lord Chancellor, Berenar, and his wife, and Captain Vizhenka of the Hezethoreise Guard and his wife Nadeian. She’d wanted to thank them, since the Hezethoreise Guard had personally guarded her for so much of the run-up to the wedding, and Maia had encouraged it for some reason she couldn’t now call to mind.

This time, buoyed both by practice and by her protector, Arano was in no way fazed by the goblins’ dark faces, but greeted them in delight from her safe vantage point, and insisted on introducing herself and telling them she was two. Maia utterly charmed her by explaining to her that the captain’s wife was his aunt, just as he was Arano’s uncle, which was a tidbit Csethiro found astonishing. Had he told her of this? He almost certainly had not, though in retrospect that made his encouragement of adding the Vizhenkas to the guest list a little less opaque.

Arbelan Drazharan arrived last, just as Csethiro was starting to worry that somehow she had forgotten to invite her. She immediately sized up what Csethiro was wearing, and said, “That’s not the most daring thing you own, is it?”

“Of course not,” Csethiro said.

Malino said, “We told her she should wear her trouser suit but she says she’s saving it.” Malino, who was nearly nineteen, was close to Csethiro’s size, and had been the grateful recipient of the large swathes of Csethiro’s wardrobe that would no longer suit now that she was Empress-- though the other sisters had all been given a crack at the castoffs, Imelzhu was too thin and short besides, Ramiro presently a bit too stout especially across the bust, and Hazhiro too conservative to wear most of it, so Malino had been the major benificiary. Some of those pieces had been a wrench to let go; it wasn’t that they weren’t given a generous allowance by their father, who understood that dressing your marriage-age daughters was an investment, but it had been difficult to get some of them made just the way she’d liked. There were a few things she’d held onto even though she could never really wear them in public again, just because she was too fond of them-- all of her fencing costumes, for example, as Malino was not particularly interested in swordswomanship.

“A trouser suit,” Arbelan said. “Who did you find to make that for you?”

“A young lady makes connections, sometimes,” Csethiro said. “We could introduce you, an you wished to follow the fashion we are sure to set.”

“And what are you saving it for?” Arbelan asked.

“Having been Empress more than a week, for starters,” Csethiro said. “Come, Aunt Arbelan, and have a drink; have you met Captain Vishenka, and his wife, Maia’s Aunt Nadeian?”

“Aunt,” Arbelan said, attention sharpening. “He mentioned aunts. Please, do the honors.”

Csethiro had never spoken with Lord Berenar’s wife, specifically, and the woman turned out to be quite entertainingly down-to-earth in her manner. Lord Berenar, likewise, proved much kinder in person than he had been in the large gatherings wherein Csethiro had interacted with him previously. She wasn’t surprised, by that; she knew Berenar had taken pains to educate Maia, with no motive other than seeing a need he could fill. He proved to be a thoroughly pleasant person, and a good addition to the gathering, especially as he was largely unfazed by the shocking things the younger sisters said. Vizhenka didn’t have much to say, but his wife was sharply witty, and there was one particular moment when she and Maia exchanged amused glances where Csethiro was struck suddenly by their resemblance to one another. She’d noticed, before, how in appearance if you disregarded complexion Maia favored his father and the Emperor’s elder sons, who’d all been her acquaintances in life; he even resembled Vedero somewhat, around the eyes, but this was a tantalizing glimpse into what his mother must have looked like, besides her coloring. Nadeian was a large person, but delicate of features, for a goblin, and darker in color than Maia, a rich charcoal to his paler slate, and there was a cant of sweet mischief to her face that Csethiro could just make out in Maia’s, where he would have been much funnier if it hadn’t been beaten out of him. It made her both angry-- at Setheris Nelar, and at Nemera Drazhar-- and simultaneously delighted, that she could begin to see Maia’s true nature blossoming in him, along with this tie to his mother’s family.

For her first soirée thrown in her own personal apartment in which she’d never entertained before, it was a wonderful dinner, and she was thoroughly delighted by it, with her great-aunt and predecessor sitting beside her and looking-- yes, proud, Arbelan looked proud, and it warmed Csethiro in a way she hadn’t felt since her mother’s death.

Her delight was compounded when Lord Berenar at one point offered congratulations to their family on the birth of their new half-brother, and all of the Ceredin girls reacted simultaneously with various levels of cynicism. It was Malino who spoke up immediately and said, “Yes, our poor father, all this time to have been without any offspring he could take pride in!”

“Csethiro’s only the Empress ,” Imelzhu said, “the family’s practically dying out.” She was only just sixteen; she’d been seven when their mother had died unsuccessfully trying to produce a son for their father, after having five daughters and two miscarriages before the last miscarriage took her with it, and she’d been eleven when he’d remarried. As a result her delicate adolescent years had been a great deal more constrained than those of her sisters, and she was resentful of it. Perhaps Cesthiro had knees and elbows full of scars from her carefree upbringing, but Imelzhu was, sullenly, largely unblemished.

“Fading into obscurity,” Ramiro put in, “we are so grateful to our stepmother for rescuing us from the penury that surely awaited us, with no brother, and only an Empress as a sister.”

Csethiro, bolstered by this support and aware of Arbelan at her elbow being amused but sad-- for she was surely one who well knew how tenuous the support of family could be-- felt gracious enough that she could lean in and say, “We thank you for your kind congratulations, Lord Berenar, for we recognize that they were sincerely meant. We, too, are glad of our family’s increase, but you must understand how it can come to grate on us, to have been so thoroughly discounted all this time. It is something of a family joke, that we are the worthless Ceredin girls, you understand.”

“As if our uncle would throw us out,” Hazhiro said. “As if we couldn’t fend for ourselves, as if none of us had managed to marry well and there was no hope for the younger ones. As if the family name would die out under our beloved uncle’s stewardship.”

“We suppose that was rather old-fashioned of us,” Berenar said, “and yet, that is still how our laws of succession work.” He looked at Maia, who returned his gaze steadily, thoughtfully. After a moment, Berenar shook his head slightly. “You wish to upend all of it, do you not?”

“There is much that can be improved without destroying aught,” Maia said demurely, with a little flash of the sparkle she’d noted in his aunt, and Csethiro had to sit quietly a moment just to let herself feel how fiercely she loved him. Arbelan, sitting beside her, reached over and took her hand and squeezed it, and she looked back at the older woman and let out a shaky breath, finding affection mirrored there.

It was only a few moments after this conversation that Hazhiro realized that although the nursemaid had taken the two little boys away before everyone sat down to dinner, Lt. Beshelar was standing guard at the dining room door and Arano had fallen asleep on his shoulder, he having apparently refused to relinquish her, or perhaps having just been overlooked.

Some negotiations ensued, and the lieutenant was persuaded to leave his post for long enough to transfer the little girl to her bed, as it was past the hour for it. Csethiro caught Cala’s eye, and the maza looked soundly amused by all of it.

“One of these days he’s going to steal someone’s baby,” Cala said to Maia as they all got up from the table to remove to the drawing room.

“An we had one, we’d let him steal it,” Csethiro said.

“He’s very honest,” Maia said, “he’d never steal anything, but he’d keep a baby as long as he was allowed to.”

“If we put in a good word with Hazhiro, she’d probably let him keep Arano,” Ramiro said. “They’ve had more trouble keeping a nursemaid, and Arano still won’t sleep through the night reliably.”

“Please,” Maia said, amused, “don’t give our First Nohecharis a toddler of his own, he gets little enough sleep as it is.”

“We wouldn’t get any sleep either,” Cala pointed out.

“You’ll just have to make one for him to borrow,” Ramiro said to Csethiro.

“If thou think’st I’m not trying my absolute best,” Csethiro said, unable to resist being baited by her sister.

“Oooh,” the two other middle sisters chorused, on a rising tone, and Imelzhu plugged her ears.

“I am too innocent for this talk,” she protested.

“Thou’lt just have to keep practicing,” Ramiro said. “I got the hang of it eventually.” Her son was nearly a year old, and had been born about a year after she’d married, which was perfectly respectable. Csethiro was of two minds of what she truly wanted, for herself, but she knew the sooner she could produce a son, the less pressure there’d be. A year seemed impossibly long to wait, but then most of that time would be taken up in gestating, which there was no way to rush. That was the part she was absolutely not looking forward to.

By her count, tonight was potentially the first day of the fertile part of her cycle, so this was more pressing an interest than it perhaps otherwise might have been. Almost she was frightened of it, but-- it was important, and it was, in the end, something she wanted. She was too aware of Arbelan sitting beside her, and knew her sisters had forgotten, but it was a long-honed instinct to keep up with her sisters’ baiting, and she had to respond. “I am practicing, Ramiro, and thou know’st I’ve done research besides.”

“Research,” Ramiro said fondly, “of course thou hast, Csethiro, thou great bookworm. But isn’t practical experimentation more your style? An thou couldst get a child by the art of the sword somehow, thou wouldst already have done so.”

“Truth,” Csethiro said, pretending to light up, “if the conventional method serves not, I’ll duel some other lady for her heir and steal one.”

“Lieutenant Beshelar could help,” Malino put in, and everyone laughed, including the maza. Even, Csethiro noted with delight, Maia. And, allaying her small worry, Arbelan was laughing too, shaking her head; the wound was too old, perhaps, to hurt her now, or perhaps it was finally healing, or perhaps she was just too generous of spirit to begrudge the sisters a good baiting session.

“He is very keen. One hopes I wouldn’t need his assistance for any of the various methods of getting an heir,” Csethiro said, deciding to up the scandalousness of the conversation, “but there is no surfeit of privacy in the Emperor’s household, so I could doubtless rely on assistance at any time.”

“Oh-ho,” Imelzhu said, “now I know this conversation is too scandalous for me.”

Now they had completed their transit to the drawing room, and Csethiro could see that Maia was blushing a little; the teasing wasn’t aimed at him, but it did include him, necessarily. And, she reminded herself, Lord Berenar and his wife were in earshot, as was the goblin captain and his wife. They all took seats around the room, and she managed to get herself onto the divan next to Maia, taking his hand in hers. “I am sorry, dear, to make crude jokes,” she murmured.

“Thou’rt fine,” Maia murmured back, under cover of the dining server offering cordials around to the assemblage. “Thy sisters are lovely.”

“I wouldn’t say lovely ,” Csethiro said, amused. “We’re a bit of an acquired taste.”

He looked directly at her, at that, and she could see it, behind his eyes, how badly he wanted to make a filthy joke about tasting her, and simply didn’t have the capacity to do it. But that was enough; she saw it, and he saw that she saw it, and his face twitched in a desperate suppression of laughter, and she made absolutely no attempt not to laugh in her turn. “You,” she said, truly delighted, when she’d laughed herself out, and pushed her shoulder against his.

He leaned back against her for a moment, smiling to himself in mild embarrassment and looking down at his hands, while most of the others in the room looked curiously at them and wondered what she was laughing so hard about.

Csethiro took the little glass of cordial the server had set down on the side table next to her, and said, “We should have a toast.” Everyone picked up their glasses, and she paused a moment. “To family,” she said.

“To family,” they all echoed, and she wetted her lips with the strong cordial and felt its warmth travel down to the middle of her, with her husband’s shoulder pressed gently against hers, and her hand twined with his.

 

_______

Chapter Text

 

“I’ve never actually even slept in here before,” Csethiro admitted, as she stood with Maia in the entryway of her bedchamber suite. It wasn’t a single room, it was a little suite of rooms, and the arrangement pleased her so much it was the reason she’d chosen this specific apartment. They were waiting for the nohecharei to change shifts, and for the edocharei to arrive to take charge of Maia’s clothing and jewelry, and Beshelar was prowling around as if he suspected one of the rooms contained some kind of portal to a pirates’ den or something. There was a sitting room, and off to one side was a lavatory, large enough to also host bathing, and beyond it was a room that could be either another sitting room, or possibly could serve as a nursery, if Csethiro wanted to keep a new baby close to her. Past the sitting room was a room that served partly as a hallway, and partly as a closet-- the walls were lined in built-in cupboards, but it was still spacious enough to host several chairs, and Csethiro used that space most of the time while she was being dressed, as it was airy and comfortable despite having no windows to the outside; there were small transoms over each door so that air still flowed even with the doors closed, and it was quite convenient to the lavatory.

Beyond that was the bedchamber itself, which was fairly small. “So our question is,” she said to Cala, “could a nohecharis sit in this room, instead of in the bedroom itself?”

“Certainly not,” Beshelar said reflexively, but Cala went and stood in the doorway, looking in at the small room with the curtain-hung bedstead-- it was a huge bed, Csethiro had thought, until she had encountered the Emperor’s absolutely enormous one. But there was only the window casement, a small writing desk with a spindly straight-backed chair, or a single padded armchair for a nohecharis to sit in, and they’d have to be right next to the bed, more or less, in any of those seats.

There were no other entrances or exits to the room, besides the window.

“We don’t see why not,” Cala mused. “Especially if we left that door open, and there’s no other way in.”

“There’s no clear line of sight,” Beshelar insisted.

“There’s no line of sight through the bed hangings either,” Cala said.

Csethiro looked at Maia, who was sitting with his hands neatly folded, ears neutral, as if he cared nothing for the outcome of the argument, but when he noticed her look, he quirked his eyebrows, eloquently indicating that he wasn’t getting involved in this. The First Nohecharei were still arguing it out, which involved trooping back and forth through the door, opening and closing it, and inspecting the walls and window for the gods only knew what, when the edocharei arrived, and the Second Nohecharei, and then all four nohecharei were effectively trapped in the bedchamber because the edocharei took over the hallway room to begin to undress Maia and take down his hair.

Csethiro stood at the far end of the hallway room and waved cheerfully at Kiru, who was standing in the opposing doorway and looking speculative.

“In truth,” she said to Csethiro, “‘tis a small room.”

“Absolutely,” Telimezh said, with as much animation as Csethiro had ever heard from him, responding to something Cala had said. “Look at this!” And he turned away, whatever he said next lost to muffledness in the other room.

“Who’s winning?” Csethiro asked.

Maia shook his head very slightly, managing to express his bafflement with a minimum of motion, since an edocharis was still pulling opals gently from his hair.

I’m winning,” Kiru said, and turned back into the room.

 

In the end, as Csethiro found out when she went to bed, it was decided that it was indeed allowable for the nohecharei to keep watch from the antechamber of the bedroom, so long as the door was open and they occasionally ventured into the bedroom to ensure the window was still secure. Kiru was in the bedchamber with Maia already, and he was sitting in the room’s sole armchair in his dressing gown.

“We suppose eventually Csethiro will wish for some privacy,” he said, “and we’ve no desire to impose upon her, but it did seem like a pleasant adventure, at least this once.”

“We told the housekeeper to be prepared to feed you something tonight,” Csethiro said to Kiru; she’d already said as much to Lt. Telimezh. “And we’ll be taking breakfast here tomorrow, before his Serenity goes back to his household, so the edocharei are prepared to dress him here, but insist that a page be sent the very instant his Serenity awakens tomorrow.”

“Yes, good,” Kiru said, and turned to leave. “Then, as usual, we’ll be nearby if you call for us, but otherwise shall disregard aught that we hear. Goodnight, Serenity, and goodnight, my lady.”

And she went out the door, pulling it partway closed. Csethiro looked at Maia, and Maia looked at her in return, for a moment dumbfounded. They were-- nearly alone, really, for the very first time in their entire acquaintance. “We could do anything we wanted,” she said.

He shook his head slightly, amused. “An it made no sound,” he said.

Suddenly mischievous, Csethiro pulled her dressing-gown off and hung it on the peg behind the door where she often kept it, and then took her nightgown off, and stood completely naked in the middle of the floor. But she casually threw the nightgown onto the bed, so she’d be able to put it back on if the nohecharei decided that they needed to come in while she was still abed.

Maia stared at her, dumbfounded, and opened his mouth, but then closed it. It was different; she’d been naked in his presence, of course, but in bed it was one thing, and to just stand here freely, visible in every part, was something entirely other. She put her hands on her hips and gave him a look that she intended to be coquettish, but probably came across as confrontational instead, because she was suddenly nervous.

“I, um,” he said hoarsely. She stepped closer to him, tilting her spine a little to push her breasts forward, which made her chin tilt up a little so she was looking down at him.

“It’s different, isn’t it,” she said, and managed to push her nervous energy into a laugh. In her research, which she might have to eventually admit far predated her engagement, she’d found some less-academic texts, including a book of pornographic engravings. Many of them had featured artfully-posed naked ladies, or women wearing revealing costumes, and she’d observed to herself that sometimes it was more alluring to wear too little clothing than none at all. She’d lately dismissed it as an option for herself, since she’d never be parading around in lingerie in front of the nohecharei, but here-- well. A new world of possibilities was opening up. And she did have a good stable of tailors, now, who knew not to talk her out of whatever it was she insisted on.

“It is,” he said, staring at her as if transfixed.

“We don’t even have to get into the bed,” she said, and took another step forward. She bent over, putting her hands on the arms of the chair, bracketing him. It was so strange to be naked: the air felt like fabric, like she could feel it moving over her skin. There was a faint breeze moving in the room; a window was open somewhere in the suite of rooms, and it smelled faintly of rain from the precipitation that had begun after dusk. It really was a lovely suite, and secure besides. She’d chosen well, even if she hadn’t precisely been thinking of this.

Maia sat back in the chair and gazed up at her with his mouth slightly open. “What else would we do?” he asked carefully.

Csethiro laughed. “I’ll have to give thee some of my more lurid novels,” she said. “People get up to all kinds of scandalous things not in bed. Why,” and she collected herself so she could say it, “thou couldst bend me over the desk there and fuck me,” and she turned her head to indicate the little writing desk. It was delicate, but it could surely withstand that sort of treatment. It was a thrill to talk thus; the hair was all risen on her arms, and her nipples had gone pointed, though it wasn’t cold in the room. “Or I could--” She decided deeds suited better than words, so she knelt in front of him, and pushed his demure knees apart so she could fit her body between them, and then she reached up and carefully unfastened his dressing gown.

“I,” he said uneasily, and she shook her head slowly, smiling.

“I”ll not ask anything of thee,” she said. “Just sit back. I read about this in a book and-- well, I never wanted to try it, but now that I’ve met you I’ve reconsidered.”

“Try what?” Maia said, equally wary and anticipatory. She grinned, and slid her hand up inside his nightshirt. He sucked in a breath, and she wrapped her hand around his member and stroked it for a moment, until the muscles of his thighs loosened and he let her come just a little closer, wariness easing in the face of arousal. She pushed his nightshirt up his thighs, and he didn’t tense up or stop her so she kept going until she had his member exposed.

She eyed it a moment, and then thought of how willing he’d been to use his mouth on her. It was only fair, and it seemed like a fairly intuitive sort of activity. So she leaned forward, and put her mouth on it, and sure enough, it was pretty easy to figure out what to do after all. He gasped, really affectingly, and his whole body twitched.

No, it wasn’t unpleasant at all, and he was so beautifully responsive, it was fairly intrinsically rewarding. Csethiro found that she could fit more of it into her mouth than she had expected, and a few of the things that had been mentioned in the description, euphemistically, suddenly made more sense to her. She had also, despite herself, been afraid it would taste disgusting, but it just tasted of Maia’s skin, really; a little more musk and salt than the rest of him, but nothing objectionable. And it felt gloriously filthy, just depraved, excitingly so. Especially to be naked and on her knees, while he was clothed-- she thrilled suddenly, internally, as she imagined doing this with him in full court regalia-- pushing aside stiff brocades and rustling silks and symbols of power, while she was naked and vulnerable-- in her excitement she took him so deep she choked herself and had to pull off a little to clear her throat.

“Beloved,” he said breathlessly, “an there were anything else you wanted to try, we had best move on or this will all be over soon.”

“So thou likest it,” she said, grinning up at him impishly, licking the taste of him from her lower lip.

“It,” he said, “it is-- more effective than-- I admit when I saw it in the manual I could not understand, but-- well, but surely-- thou wouldst like something for thyself?”

“In truth, I find I like--” she said, and pushed herself up a little-- and then was distracted by a certain proximity, and connected it to yet a different lurid novel she had read, an off-hand reference only, but had she but a little more flesh in the bust she could enclose his member in the cleavage of her breasts-- she made an attempt, avidly interested in how utterly filthy it was.

“Oh, gods,” he said feebly-- she was too slender, as yet, to enclose him fully, but it was an intriguing notion, and whatever his tone was, it was not one of objection. His skin was so hot, and so firm, and against the soft cool flesh of her--

“Thou’rt about to discover how much research I have really done,” she said, and looked up at him, abandoning the attempt in sudden self-consciousness. “I like to know about things, Maia.”

The smile he gave her was not lascivious or condescending, but rather a sort of out-of-place sweet smile, as if she were not completely naked and climbing into his lap. “I know,” he said, and his hand was warm against the skin of her ribs.

“This chair is not perfectly suited to this,” she said, attempting to get her knees to either side of his hips, “but I could surely find a better one.”

“I think,” Maia said, putting his hands on her waist to hold her still, “we need not subject the chair to it.”

She managed not to let her ears show her dismay-- she’d gotten so carried away, thinking of wild sexual escapades they could have, but very likely her husband, who had told her he felt holy during sex, was not likely to want to do anything that was even pretending to be filthy or degrading with her, even sanctified by the bonds of marriage as it was.

“Thou’rt right,” she said lightly, smiling at him, and slid back out of his lap so he could get to his feet. Anyway she had a duty to perform, punctuated by her calendar’s ruthless calculations. Wild foolishness wasn’t disallowed, but it was a great deal less important than duty, and he wasn’t obligated to indulge her at all.

He stood and put his arms around her, pulling her close and kissing her, and at least it wasn’t a chaste or dutiful kiss. And, thrillingly, he slid his hand down and grasped her firmly by the buttock, pulling her close against him. “My beautiful wife,” he said. “Of all the things that I-- I have-- that are in my life, now, thou’rt the most astonishing.”

“Astonishing,” she said.

“Astonishing,” he repeated. “And I’ve--” He hesitated, and she knew now to wait and let him work out his thought. After a short pause he said, “I’ve acquired a taste for thee already.”

She laughed, recognizing the joke from earlier that he hadn’t made. “Hast thou,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, and she went willingly then to the bed. It wasn’t all duty, after all.

But she did remember her duty, and remembered she hadn’t informed him, about five or six orgasms later as she was lying panting for breath and he was watching her, licking his fingers with a detached, satisfied kind of amusement, although he had not yet taken his own satisfaction and surely had to be aching for it.

“Oh, my calendar,” she said, gathering herself enough to roll over toward him.

He raised his eyebrows. “Calendar?”

“My cycle,” she said. “This week-- it starts this week, I could conceive. Tonight, if my count is good, though tomorrow night will be better and the night after that better still.”

He looked uncertain. “To--”

“The whole point of this,” she said, though she knew that was the wrong thing to say, and amended it nearly immediately: “Well, the excuse for it, anyway.”

“Should we-- wait?” he asked, ears showing nervousness and dismay.

“Wait? No, Maia,” Csethiro said, “I don’t think so. It will probably take several months’ worth of attempts anyway, and that if we’re lucky.”

He still looked uncertain, unhappy, and she wriggled closer to put her arms around him. “I wouldn’t,” he said, fumblingly, “like Arbelan-- I wouldn’t--”

Csethiro put her finger to his lips, and shook her head. “I’m not talking to thee as the Empress,” she said softly. “I’m talking to thee as thy wife, Maia. I’ve been raised my whole life knowing my duty would be to marry a man and give him children, and while I’ve at times objected to parts of that, I’ve never shied from it. All I wanted was a good man, and I have that. I want children, for myself, and I want children, to give to thee, and if it’s my duty as Empress to provide them, well, that’s on the list but it’s far down the list.”

“But if we couldn’t,” Maia said.

She shook her head. “Please,” she said. “I don’t want to dwell on that.” To lighten the mood, she added, “We’ve got to do something to keep Beshelar busy.”

It worked; Maia laughed. “That is the most important duty I have,” he said.

“Anyway,” Cesthiro went on, “it took my sister Ramiro a little more than a year to give her husband a son, and I want to beat her, so we need to start straightaway.”

“I’d be happy with a daughter,” Maia said.

“Oh, that would be all right too,” Csethiro said, pretending to bad grace about it. “Hazhiro took more than a year to produce Arano, though, so Ramiro’s the time to beat.”

“Dost thou compete with thy sisters in everything?” Maia asked.

“No,” Csethiro said, “I’ve already won everything that matters.”

Maia’s forehead creased a little as he puzzled over that. “By becoming Empress?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “don’t be silly. By getting the best husband.”

He blinked at her. “The Emperor,” he said.

“No,” she said. “ Thou , Maia-- thour’t just the best.” She relented, seeing his blankness, and knowing he had no idea how siblings interacted and had probably only seen bad examples of it. “I am kidding, Maia, we aren’t really competitive about things that matter. We all want one another to be happy and to succeed, and would do anything to help one another, but it is fun to be able to boast of some achievement or other and pretend to fight about it. But it is all pretend, Maia. There is no real hardness of feeling in any of it.”

“Oh,” he said, not fully convinced. “So-- dost thou want--”

“Oh, I want a baby,” she said, “and as fast as possible, that’s not a jest. An it cause no harm, I absolutely do want to outcompete my sister. But there’s naught truly at stake, and if it takes me longer, well, then I’ll find some other thing I can boast of. Say, for example, that the child it took me longer to produce is cuter, or bigger, or somesuch. We’ll always find something to argue about, and mean nothing by any of it.”

“Oh,” he said, and finally smiled at her. “Well, I suppose I am persuaded.”

The pause for conversation had given her a chance to recover some of her equanimity, but hadn’t really dampened her ardor, so she quelled her first impulse, which was to playfully tackle him-- remembering that he might be alarmed by physical violence, even in play-- and instead rolled onto her back.

“Husband,” she said, “I need a thorough seeing-to.”

“I am a slave to duty,” he said, grinning, and as she pulled him close and pulled his night-shirt off him, she thought about how funny he ought to be, by all rights, and determined that she was going to see him become the kind of man who could crack a joke on the first try without hesitating. Of all her projects, that was the most secret and precious.




Csevet noted the hullaballoo attendant upon Himself spending the night at his wife’s apartments with interest; it was surely a good sign, and also he felt that it was good for Himself, to feel a little freed; he’d been more comfortable here, of late, but everything about the Empress seemed to be good for him so far, to draw him out of the shell he’d arrived at court tightly packed into. It was a beautiful... unfurling, perhaps, would be a good poetic descriptor. At any rate, it’d do him good to feel he had another safe place. And if it meant a page had to come and summon the Second Nohecharei, and the edocharei with assorted bags and baskets and boxes to go and retrieve Himself’s clothing and jewelry and leave him prepared to rise upon the morrow and be comfortable until the edocharei could be sent for-- “but you must send for us, immediately ,” Nemer said fretfully-- well, it was all to the good to shake things up now and then.

Csevet was still up writing, picking at a late dinner in the kitchen as he worked, when the First Nohecharei came back. “How was the dinner?” Echelo asked, torn between eagerness to know, and a pretended diffidence to cover her concern that the Empress’s housekeeper might outdo her.

Cala grinned. “Beshelar stole a baby,” he said.
“We did not,” Beshelar protested, the very portrait of indignation. He was clearly putting it on, and it was very appealing.

“The nursemaid came and put the other children to bed, and completely missed that Beshelar had stolen one of them and had her asleep on his shoulder,” Cala said.

“We did nothing of the sort,” Beshelar said, blushing becomingly, and it was plain he didn’t mind being teased about this and was enjoying himself. He liked Echelo, plainly, and knew she liked him. “We gave her up as soon as we were asked. They knew she was there the whole time.”

“Thou’rt fond of wee ones,” Echelo observed.

Beshelar drew himself up. “It was Herself’s niece Arano, who is two, and told me that her uncle Maia is very tall and beautiful. She liked when I held her because she could see everybody. And then she fell asleep, because it was past her bedtime and I was rocking her. But I did not steal her.” He spread out his hands in front of himself. “An I had, I’d still have her, but I do not, so clearly, I returned her to her mother.”

“Thou’rt the broodiest soldier I ever met,” Echelo said.

Beshelar shook his head. “I’ve little enough interest in fathering my own,” he said. “But who doesn’t love holding a baby? They’re so sweet, when it doesn’t fall to one to actually be responsible for them.”

Csevet devoted some real thought to it for a moment, then confessed, “I don’t think I’ve ever held a baby.”

They all stared at him in scandal for a moment, until Cala admitted, “Nor I, since I was a child myself.”

“It’s a normal part of being alive,” Beshelar said, seeming utterly floored by this concept. “How does one live one’s entire adult life and never encounter any children?”

“It’s easy,” Cala said, “when one lives one’s adult life in thy company, because they go to thee instead.”

“Thou hast lived in my company less than half a year,” Beshelar said, but was more or less drowned out by the general amusement at Cala’s response, and the conversation moved on.

Csevet put away his paperwork, and finished up the last of his dinner while the nohecharei ate theirs. Echelo had a number of pointed questions about the Empress’s household and staff, and the nohecharei gave well-considered answers. From the sounds of it, the Empress had a reasonable and modest apartment with reasonable accommodations befitting her station, which she had outfitted in a tasteful and up-to-date style, and staffed with knowledgeable people, but she was not attempting to rival the splendor of the Emperor’s apartment, nor the size of his household’s staff. Also from the sounds of it, her sisters were hilarious, and Csevet felt a little sorry he hadn’t been able to find a pretext to attend. He’d probably have plenty of future opportunities to observe them all, however.

At length Cala sighed and unfolded himself from the table. “I’m going to bed,” he said, and held out a hand to help Beshelar up. Beshelar stood, but then glanced over at Csevet, who raised his eyebrows. Cala noticed, and hesitated. “Oh, you probably want to finish whatever you were discussing,” he said, using the plural. He waved a hand, yawning. “I’ll set the clock, then, and not wait up for thee.”

“That would probably be best,” Beshelar said, blushing just a little.

Csevet got to his feet, and collected his papers back into his document case, and Beshelar picked it up for him. “I can carry it now, it doesn’t hurt,” Csevet protested futilely.

“Shouldst not, though,” Beshelar said gruffly. “Thou’rt not healed all the way yet, it takes longer than that.”

“It’s healed enough,” Csevet said. He had begun to forego the sling sometimes, though mostly when Telimezh was on duty, because he knew it would fret Beshelar.

They all moved out to the corridor that led to most of the servants’ quarters. Csevet’s rooms-- he had generously been given a pleasant little suite with a sitting room and a bedroom, far more than he’d ever rated in his life, but Echelo liked him-- weren’t far from the nohecharis suite, but there was a turning-off of the hallway where they parted from Cala.

In the relative privacy of the hallway, the maza was not under any obligation to be subtle. He paused, at the parting, and looked at Beshelar, then at Csevet. But after a moment’s hesitation, all he said was, “Don’t injure each other,” and then he turned and left.

“Again,” Beshelar said glumly. “I’ll do my best.”

Csevet elbowed him gently. “Thinkst thou I’d let thee get in another hit like that?”

“There was no let ,” Beshelar growled, but it was light-hearted, and as soon as Csevet closed the door of his entryway, he put his hand against Beshelar’s chest and carefully pushed him into the wall-- taking pains that the nohecharis realized it was playful, as despite the joking, he really was quite eager not to get a broken skull or something from startling the man.

“Now where did we leave off?” Csevet asked, savoring the way Beshelar instantly went pink and wide-eyed as Csevet leaned in and spoke softly, looking up under his lashes.

“With me thinking this was a terrible idea in a public room,” Beshelar said, “so I’m happier already.”

“Where’s thy sense of adventure?” Csevet said, but he was done talking, and put his mouth to another use, namely kissing Beshelar much more thoroughly than he’d managed to in the breathless, scant few minutes before Cala had come out of the Emperor’s bedchamber and interrupted them.

It was better to have waited, but he was impatient now. It took a matter of a moment for him to discern that Beshelar was not a terribly experienced kisser, but had some natural talent and a lot of enthusiasm. He was shy about touching, though, and kept his hands demurely pressed against the wall.

He wasn’t the first inexperienced lover Csevet had encountered, and he wasn’t much worried about getting him up to speed. After a moment, Csevet stepped back, and was rewarded with Deret’s eyes taking a moment to flutter open. “I,” Deret said.

“Come on,” Csevet said, pulling him by the front of his jerkin into the sitting room. “I want to see how much of this is padding.”

Deret laughed. “I hope thou’lt not be too disappointed,” he said, and let Csevet push him down onto the settee and sit astride his lap. He was slightly less shy, here, and put his arms on Csevet’s thighs to help steady him. Csevet took his time about it; they didn’t have all night, but he wasn’t expecting to get up to any athletic feats tonight. He just wanted to explore some of the basics, as it were, and get to know if Deret were truly as interested as he’d seemed.

It was a few minutes’ work to get Deret’s jerkin unbuttoned, along with unbuckling the knife belt and removing the baldric. “This padding isn’t that thick,” Csevet observed.

Deret peeled himself out of the jacket, revealing a set of well-built shoulders and arms through the fine linen of his shirt. “Sure it is,” he said. “Look, we’re much of a size. We could trade clothes.”

“Thou’d’st destroy any shirt of mine, an thou put it on,” Csevet protested, and then was distracted by Deret carefully unfastening the sling and then removing his jacket in turn, and then his shirt, and it wasn’t the first time Deret had undressed him, nor even the second-- he remembered, now, when he’d kissed Beshelar before; he’d been half out of his mind, with that cantrip, and Deret had gently tucked him into bed all sad and careful and responsible.

He had to kiss him again, for that, and it was a little while before he surfaced to take Deret’s shirt off him. “There’s not more padding in this one, is there?” he asked.

“Oh, of course,” Deret said, clearly kidding, and Csevet had to untangle the neckline of the shirt from his topknot. He unwrapped the hair tie entirely, and let Deret’s hair down; it was longer than it had seemed, and heavy, well-maintained-- as it would be, protected by the simple hairstyle. He’d clearly had it trimmed recently because the ends were blunt and even, and the whole of it was silky and clean.

“It’s a waste that thou never stylest thy hair,” Csevet said, running his hand through it enviously. His own hair was thinner and finer; it held a style perfectly well, but wasn’t so glossy and thick.

“I could never be as pretty as thee,” Deret said. “‘Tis better not to try.” He shook his head a little, freeing his hair from Csevet’s fingers, and then Csevet took a better look at his bare shoulders and made a face at him.

“Thou look’st even bigger with the jacket off,” he said. Deret had beautiful shoulders, heavily-muscled under clear pale skin, and his chest was no unpleasant sight either. He wasn’t stocky, exactly, but he was well-built.

Csevet was no unattractive specimen himself, he knew that, but he was slender and narrow-built, and it normally made people underestimate him in both strength and age. Kiru, for example, had made several references to Csevet’s extreme youth, and there had never been an opportunity to gently correct her, so he was letting her delusion persist.

“We can’t all be perfect,” Deret said.

“I’m not complaining ,” Csevet said. He was contemplating whether he wanted to remove this to his bed. Having a bed that was his own exclusively was a novelty, and he liked the privacy of it, but if he invited Deret back to it, he could perhaps more fully enjoy these proceedings. “But thou couldst pick me up.”

Deret looked up at him, considering. “Dost thou want me to?” He looked so different with his hair down, especially since the topknot had left waves in his hair and so it had spread itself into an extravagant gently-curling mane. He looked rather like the etched-plate illustrations of half-dressed, muscular swordsmen that sometimes adorned the interior title pages of the more expensive sort of lurid novels nobles sometimes had in their houses.

“I want a lot of things,” Csevet said, running his hands down Deret’s chest. “I want thee to take thy trousers off, is what I want.”

Deret blushed. “I’ve, I-- if--” he said, clearly well out of his depth, and Csevet slid out of his lap and sat next to him a moment, unbuckling his own shoes, and then slid to the floor to untie the fastidious knots of Deret’s tightly-laced boots. They were boring, standard infantry boots, designed for long marches and standing around, with hob-nailed soles suited better to the outdoors than to indoor work.

“Don’t nohecharei get a clothing allowance?” Csevet asked. “Thou couldst get thyself some more stylish boots.”

“All the trouble I’ve gone to,” Deret said, “learning to walk quietly in hob-nails, and you want me to trade them for leather soles?”

“Hob-nails are no good on wet tile floors,” Csevet said. “Thou needst the new gum-rubber soles.”

“I’ve never taken an interest in fashion and I’ll not start now,” Deret said, amused.

“Thou canst not truly be marnis without at least some interest in fashion,” Csevet said, and reached up to unfasten his trousers.

“I am not concerned overmuch with such classifications,” Deret said. “I am concerned primarily with what thou’rt doing on the floor, and less so with what thou’rt wearing while doing it, though I’d put in a request for thou to shed thy trousers as I shed mine.”

“I am going to suck thy cock,” Csevet told him, “so I suppose thou’rt right in not concerning thyself much with what I’m wearing.” He got Deret’s trousers unfastened and made the expected discovery, which was that Deret was in a properly excited state about all of this, and so it was the work of a moment to move his remaining clothing enough out of the way to reveal a lovely, blushing erection, as well-formed as the rest of the man. He hummed appreciatively, and gave it an experimental stroke, and Deret swore uncharacteristically and whacked his head on the wall behind the settee.

“The only thing Cala asked of us is that we not injure one another,” Csevet said, mock-scolding, and before Deret could summon any kind of answer to that, he put his mouth on the head of Deret’s cock.

Deret made a muffled noise that might have begun as more swearing, but Csevet glanced up to confirm that indeed, Deret had just stuffed his own hand into his mouth to quiet himself. Csevet smiled sweetly up at him, licked across the tip of his cock, then took him in deeper, bobbing his head. He was good at this, and liked it a great deal, and as he’d suspected, it was clear nobody had ever done this to Beshelar before.

Deret whimpered and shuddered as Csevet worked, and Csevet sighed in pleasure-- he was very, very fond of doing this-- but then considered that perhaps, perhaps, since Deret had so little experience, and since their time together was so limited, perhaps he should pause a moment and draw this out a little longer, since it was quite obvious he wouldn’t have to work very much longer to bring this to a conclusion. And he did want that, it would be all right, but nobody had even managed to get naked, and he wanted a little more out of this.

At least they should discuss it. This wasn’t some impulsive tumble in some grubby inn on the road with some anonymous soldier. Csevet swallowed Deret down for a moment, letting his eyes roll back at the satisfying, thick, choking pressure of a full throat, and then pulled off, savoring the smooth slide over his tongue, the sweet salt taste of Deret’s desperate arousal, the stuttering gasp he made-- oh, he was close, this was a lot for him, and Csevet was so tempted to swallow him back down and finish him off.

But he made himself pull away and look up at Deret’s blank, awed face, note how his hands were white-knuckled on the settee cushions-- either he didn’t know he was allowed to touch, or he was afraid to, and that wouldn’t do. “I want to keep doing that,” Csevet said, “but I also want-- thou’rt allowed to touch me, know’st thou?”

Deret collected himself enough to say, “Where?” and Csevet blinked at him. “Where can I-- touch thee? I don’t want to--”

“I won’t break,” Csevet said, but he couldn’t be cross, Deret was so wide-eyed and wondering and right at the edge of his composure. Csevet shed his shoes, shed his trousers while he was at it, and climbed back into Deret’s lap in his drawers, paused to kiss him, and then took Deret’s hands and put them on his hips. Deret looked up wonderingly at him, and Csevet pulled the tashin sticks out of his hair and set them aside, collecting the little jeweled clips that held the ends of his accent braids and then running his fingers through to scatter the last of the arrangement, so his hair spilled down his shoulders and the little braids began to unravel.

It was gratifying how awed Deret looked; it wasn’t an expression his face bore often. Csevet had to kiss him, for that, and at last Deret moved his hands, stroking Csevet’s back, touching his shoulder, his neck, his jaw, and then touching his hair. Loose hair was perhaps more intimate than naked skin, and clearly that was how Deret felt about it.

In a moment, more daringly, Deret moved his other hand and rubbed against the front of Csevet’s drawers, and when Csevet squirmed in response, Deret managed a laugh. “This is what I know how to do,” he said, and drew Csevet’s erection out through the flies and took it in his hand. He did have big hands, strong and capable, not rough like a workman’s, and Csevet wriggled in his grasp, finding he himself was far further along in his arousal than he’d realized.

“Let’s to my bed,” he said, abruptly out of patience for teasing, “this is--”

Deret moved both hands to curl them under Csevet’s thighs, and with a powerful and well-balanced move, stood up like that, holding him. “I wasn’t going to ask,” he said, “but since thou didst offer--”

Csevet wrapped his arms around Deret’s neck in reflexive alarm; he’d been teasing about being carried, but Deret seemed not to be under any particular strain. “Oh,” and Csevet was alarmed to realize that he was extremely, extremely aroused by this, “oh-- oh , thou’rt--”

Deret took a few easy, unhurried steps across the room, and paused to lean Csevet’s back against the wall so that he could free up a hand to unlatch the bedroom door. But he kept Csevet pressed against the wall for a moment, to kiss him, and then took his freed hand and gave Csevet’s erection a good firm tug with it, and Csevet whimpered and shuddered a bit, discovering that he very, very much liked this odd feeling of-- whatever it was-- being pinned against the wall-- he ought to hate that, but, well, it was Beshelar , and somehow--

“Fuck,” Csevet gasped, when Deret pulled his mouth away, and moved his hand back under Csevet’s leg to carry him into the room the rest of the way.

Deret didn’t exactly throw him down onto the bed, but he put him down without a great deal of control of the descent, so that he bounced, and then Deret was atop him, shedding trousers and unlaced boots, and his shoulders were broad and his body was heavy and his hair was a mane around both of their faces, and he wasn’t exactly pinning Csevet down, but Csevet could almost pretend he was, which again he ought not to like so much but it was Beshelar, and he did.

“Thy shoulder,” Deret said, pausing to pull a chagrined face at him, “did I--”

Csevet grabbed him by the neck and pulled him down to kiss him forcefully, and Deret took that for an answer. It was a little while before Csevet had the self-possession to answer, “The key to successfully pinning me to a wall without injury is first checking for obstructions, but fortunately there’s no protruding wall molding on that bit.”

“I did look,” Beshelar said. “It’s easier when I am not dodging thy fists.”

“Fortunately I don’t keep wall moldings in my bed either,” Csevet said. “Thou couldst-- don’t be shy,” he said, and wrapped his leg around Deret’s hip, pulling him down so that he could get his hand around both of their cocks at once, though somewhat hampered by them still both half-wearing drawers. It didn’t matter, it was enough, it was pressure and Deret made an affecting little suppressed gasp and jerked against him. But in his excitement, Csevet moved his right arm unwarily just as it was getting good, and didn’t manage to choke down his noise of pain.

Deret paused, looking up to his face in concern. “It’s fine,” Csevet said, grimacing as the pain sparked unpleasantly through his shoulder blade. It always took a moment to die down when he did that, and it was so hard not to show it.

“Tsk,” Deret said, leaning down on an elbow which meant putting most of his weight on Csevet, “lie back, let me--” and replaced Csevet’s hand with his. Distantly, Csevet noticed that Beshelar was right, he wasn’t really that big, his fingers weren’t really any longer than Csevet’s, but his hand was broader-- but it was a pretty distant realization, because most of Csevet was busy being really extremely aroused by the weight and the pressure and being so gently held down and so firmly seen to that even the residual pain in his back felt good, all tingling through his body, and maybe this wasn’t exactly what Csevet had intended to do once he finally had Deret Beshelar in his bed but at the moment, he was really-- he was-- he--

-- oh --

Deret made a strangled gasp and shuddered against him, clearly set off by Csevet’s own climax, and as Csevet shivered through it, far more intense than he’d anticipated from just this, just hands, not even fully unclothed and barely coordinated, he pressed his face against Deret’s shoulder and felt-- safe .



Chapter Text

Odaru Culezhin received the note from Csevet Aisava and the offer letter from Csethero Zhasan in the same batch of messages from the pneumatic. She considered them next to one another, noting with some pleasure that the Zhasan’s seal included a fine sunblade-- she had been an admirer of Csethiro Ceredin’s fencing exhibitions for some time, a member of the small fan club largely made up of marno women and a few men of a particularly impressionable sort. The sighing when the news of that young lady’s engagement had gone public had been not widespread exactly, but highly-targeted.

Aisava’s message was sealed with a generic House Drazhada seal.

Odaru took them both back to her little garret room in her father’s house, and used her usual method to open them without breaking the seals. She read both. The offer letter was welcome indeed; she could not stay here much longer. Her father sternly disapproved of literally every facet of her personality, and had made it absolutely certain that she would not last out the spring unmarried in his household, so she had been keeping herself out of view as much as possible and considering absolutely desperate job offers, because the only people interested in marrying her, unbeautiful and under-dowered as she was, had already killed several wives and really just needed her to raise and bear children until it killed her as well, and not a one of them was interested in her own merits one bit. Likely none of them would let her work at all, or ever see any of her friends again, and she’d be dead in a handful of years between the absolute loss of freedom and the rigors of childbearing. She had no illusions she’d adjust well to it, or that any of them would treat her as a person, even.

It took her some moments to regain enough composure to look at the other letter.

The letter from Aisava was interesting. He told her she was likely to get an offer from the Zhasan, but whether she did or not, he would like to meet with her the following day, as he might have a job for her either way, and moreover if she were joining the Empress’s household after all, he had a number of things he felt he should go over with her.

Given that the Empress had asked her to come the following day as well, the timing could be tight, and she considered who she should answer to first. Her loyalties naturally must lie with the Empress, but Aisava-- she knew of him, of his prior life, and understood that she had somewhat in common with him, likely, and would need him as an ally moreover.

Either way, she would work it out. She looked around her room and thought on what she would need to take with her, and came up largely empty. Her research was all stowed at the homes of the noblewomen she’d done it for. She kept nothing here, for her father was likely to confiscate or destroy it. She owned only a little clothing, and no jewelry to speak of; her various employers had all given her lavish gifts of jewelry and she’d sold all of it after one or two wearings for form’s sake, to keep up the rent on her own little room as long as she could before she’d had to give up and come back here.

The Empress’s offer letter did lay out the terms of her compensation: crucially, food and lodging were both provided, and an unspecified clothing allowance, and the salary on top of that was moderate but reasonable, especially given the other benefits already provided. It was a standard offer, but on the high side; Odaru rather thought it was what the Zhasan had been prepared to pay a man.

Odaru filled a small valise with her few personal belongings-- practical things, like underwear and socks, a spare petticoat in good repair, the three volumes of her journals that were all she had-- and wrote several letters for the next morning before she went to bed.

She rose at dawn, took her valise and her folio of letters, and went out into the world, pausing only to tell her father’s housekeeper that she had taken a new job and was vacating the room in the garret. “And when wilt thou be back this time?” the housekeeper asked.

“We won’t return,” she said. If she did, her father would not give her any more time-- he didn’t need her as a nanny to her little half-siblings anymore, and he’d replaced her with hired clerks while she’d been working on research projects for noble ladies-- but would have her a third or fourth wife to one of his cronies within a week. It was this, or giving up on any hope of respectability and taking up the other job offers that had been dangled for her, which she also was not excited by but would let her survive longer than her father’s plans likely would. (A horrible truth of society was that whores died in childbed less often than wives did, largely by dint of being able to take measures to avoid it.)

One way or another, she wasn’t coming back here.

She dropped her letters off at the various stations where they needed to go, and then betook herself to the Court, and its miles of passages. The rest of her letters went to the pneumatic station there, and then she set out for the Alcethmeret, retracing the previous day’s steps.

The grates were closed, of course, as it was not yet decent calling hours. The Empress’s apartments were close by, and she dithered a moment; she could report there, but it was only just dawn, and no respectable people would be awake. Presenting herself to a great lady’s household before the household was awake was not likely to endear her to either said great lady or the great lady’s housekeeper. She had liked the housekeeper, the previous day, and did not want to alienate her.

So she lurked in the hallway, until she heard the grate of the Alcethmeret open.

A page boy came out, and looked around and saw her, perking up. “Min Culezhin?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Mer Aisava sent me to find you,” he said. “He got your pneumatic. Come with me!”

He was about eleven, chubby and sweet-faced, in Drazhadeise livery, a bit sleep-mussed still. She followed him past the guards still stationed at the grille-- one of them was a goblin, pure black, red eyes, heavy jaw, and he watched her pass and gave her what she realized was an encouraging smile-- and up the staircase into the Emperor’s personal apartments.

Mer Aisava was a little sleepy-looking, but perfectly turned-out, and was sitting in what had to be the Emperor’s formal dining-room, papers spread out across the table. “What luck to catch her so quickly,” he said to the page, approvingly, who beamed at him in transparent hero-worship. “Well done. Thank’ee, my boy.” He rose and greeted Odaru as the page left, and gestured her to a seat next to him at the table. “Did you receive any note from the Zhasan?”

“Yes,” Odaru said, “she wants me to start there today, but we thought it rather too early to go and knock on her door.”

“Fantastic,” Aisava said. “Oh, congratulations. We look forward to working with you, as we expect we’ll need to coordinate a good many things.”

“We are eager to consult with you,” Odaru said.

“We understand, of course,” Aisava said, “that your primary loyalty must needs be to the Zhasan. In all things, you must put her interests first, and we do understand that. Fortunately, so far, theirs is a happy union, so there is little conflict in that. Should any develop, however, understand that we would not put you in the midst of it, but rather you and ourself would seek to mitigate what we could of it.”

“We understand,” Odaru said.

Aisava pulled out a folio of papers, some bound into place and others loose, and flipped through it. It was tidily organized, with little tabs protruding here and there to more easily allow him to flip to just the place he wanted. He withdrew a loose sheet, and slid it over toward her. “We of course already reviewed your relevant experience and so have outlined what further skills we think you should endeavor to develop, and we have recommendations of where you could search for the information you need. We also have assembled some lists of relationships and developments we thought you should possibly be aware of.” He withdrew another sheet, and put it on top of the first. “We would not presume to tell you how to do your job, exactly, but we have some advice on the problems we think would be unique to the Zhasan’s situation, close as she is to our own master, which we’ve taken the liberty of writing a few short paragraphs about.” He flipped a few pages, selected the page he was looking for, and added it to her pile. “And, we have made a list of information we would like to request from you at your convenience, once you have established yourself in the Zhasan’s household.” He added another sheet to her pile. All of it was written out in his lovely secretary’s hand, nearly as fine as her own, and she wondered how long he’d been assembling it, or if this was a daunting picture into how hard she was going to have to work to keep up.

“Thank you,” she said, gathering the pile of papers toward herself to put into her folio. “This is all very generous of you.”

He smiled at her. “It’s not generosity,” he said, “it is hope. We have needed an ally, and hope to find one in you.”

She smiled back, trying not to show her wariness: was he hoping to seduce her? By reputation, Aisava was the sort of courier who favored the company of other couriers, and was not much about, in the under-society frequented by their social caste-- even the less so since his abrupt ascension to the rank of a palace administrator. She’d met him, before, but he hadn’t made much of an impression at the time-- one of many in the service of the Lord Chancellor. She’d assumed he was marnis, since he hadn’t gotten anyone she knew pregnant, but that might have been a rash assumption.

“On another note,” he said, lowering his voice a little-- oh no, here it comes, she thought-- “we were also interested to discover that you have numerous connections within the circle of the Archduchess Vedero.”

Oh, that wasn’t a proposition, it was very nearly the opposite. “We do,” she said, guardedly interested.

Aisava steepled his fingers in front of himself, clearly giving his words careful consideration. “This is a social circle,” he said slowly, “that will likely grow, under Edrehasivar’s reign, to hold a great deal of power.”

“It would be nice,” Odaru said before she could think better of it. There had always been a sense of doomed revelry, under Varenechibel IV, understanding that he suffered them to hold their soirees and construct their painstaking works and make their little societies, so long as he didn’t have to notice them, and until he found a better use for his daughter than presiding over them. There had always been this cringing edge of all of it, tamping down on any flamboyance, undercutting any genuine expression; every publication had begun with long prevarications, and exhortations to the reader not to take any of these sentiments to be radical, these thought exercises for aught but fancies, and the like.

Aisava smiled. “It will,” he said. “Edrehasivar is a wholehearted supporter of his half-sister’s cause.” He squinted one eye, distorting his pretty face into a wry, hesitant expression. “But he is also very young and... rather sheltered, so he does not… quite… fully understand, explicitly, what it is that he is supporting. He is not foolish, at all, nor is he naive, but he is… not terribly well-informed, of the details of…”

“He doesn’t know about Zhelendo,” Odaru said, amused. Zhelendo Nurevin was Vedero Drazhin’s assistant, lover, secretary, and all but wife.

“He has met her,” Aisava said. “And he may have… he has not been formally told of her exact… position.”

Odaru couldn’t help it, she smothered a laugh too late. Her position! Her position. She coughed, covering her mouth, and tried to get herself back under control, mortified.

Fortunately, Aisava laughed as well. “I am sorry,” he said, covering his mouth as well. “I didn’t mean--”

“We most likely don’t need to give him that level of detail,” Odaru said.

“As if Vedero would be aught but a top,” Aisava murmured.

Odaru gave him a sidelong look, making a show of pursing her lips; the comment had cemented for her that he was certainly marnis, because no one who wasn’t would use a term like that. He saw her look and raised his eyebrows. “No?”

“They’re both switches,” Odaru said, “ please . Men always think the smaller one has to be the bottom. Art thou new ?”

“Mayhap I am,” Aisava mused, marveling at himself, and like that, they were on intimate terms. He mulled that over a moment, then looked at her. “The Archduchess advised Herself that thou wert disinterested in marriage.”

“I am,” Odaru said. “It’s a deathtrap, and a prison.” She reined herself in and said, “I’m sure it’s fine for some but I’ve little hope, myself, and less interest.”

Aisava nodded. “I don’t blame thee,” he said. “It’s not a station I’ve a great deal of interest in either, if thou understandest.”

She smiled at his expression, as he’d rolled his eyes a little to look at her with emphasis. “It’s not that I won’t keep that sort of company with men,” she said. “I’m not… opposed, in theory. But I won’t belong to one, and I find the company of women quite congenial as well.” She looked at him, and decided to go all in. “Also, I top, exclusively, so thou may’st be more interested than thou think’st.”

That got him to laugh. “Mayhap,” he said. “I have been told I should keep an open mind.”

The Emperor’s housekeeper put her head in the door a few minutes later, as their conversation continued, and Csevet casually included Odaru in his request for breakfast, only belatedly glancing at her to see her shyly pleased assent. She hadn’t eaten since midday the previous day, in her ongoing efforts to go unnoticed by her father’s household. She managed to exercise genteel restraint, but Csevet noticed that she was hungry.

“If thou playest thy cards right,” he said, “Herself will feed you breakfast too.”

“If I am fortunate,” she said solemnly, “I won’t have to rely on handouts going forward.”

“Ah,” he said, “let me see the letter Herself wrote you-- does it have good terms, for the offer? Her finances are not entirely dependent on Himself’s, but I do have a rudimentary idea of her budget.”

Odaru produced the letter, noticing belatedly that she’d re-fastened the seal out of habit. Csevet looked at the apparently sealed letter in puzzlement, and Odaru took it back and carefully pried the seal off again. It didn’t come entirely intact this time, but it still didn’t break. Csevet took it and looked it over in some wonder. “How,” he said.

Odaru blushed, a little embarrassed. “I have a habit of opening letters without breaking the seal,” she said. “There’s a technique-- I could teach thee.”

“I have techniques,” Csevet said, “they’re just-- a little time-consuming.”

“Mine may not be better,” she said. “It’s just-- habit, which I’ll have to break.”

He shrugged slightly. “Add that to the list I gave thee,” he said, indicating the stack of papers, “of things I’d like to go over at thy convenience.”

She smiled. “I’ll bring the tools when we next meet,” she said. Actually she had them, along with everything she owned, but she’d rather not get into it just now.

Csevet read the letter, frowning, but the frown was apparently just due to concentration; when he finished reading it, he nodded. “It’s a fair compensation package,” he said. “That clothing allowance will prove to be generous, if thou makest good friends with the housekeeper.”

“I do hope so,” Odaru said. She’d passed a miserable winter, without adequate clothing for how cold it was, without adequate food, without adequate heat in her garret. As she said it, though, she reassessed Aisava, and noted that he was indeed beautifully-dressed-- conservative, staid, unobtrusive, but exquisite. “I am familiar with the Ceredada, and how their servants are dressed.”

“Thou’rt not a servant, mind,” Csevet said. “And so thou must not present as one. I recommend befriending Herself’s edocharei; they’ll be delighted to teach you some higher-caste hairstyles, an thou dost not already know them.”

Odaru put a hand to her hair, remembering-- well, she’d worn the same style for a long time, without ever thinking of it. Unobtrusive, unassuming, a simple twist without adornment beyond simple tashin sticks, suitable for a clerk or a lady’s maid alike. But Csevet was right, and besides heavily-ornamented tashin, he had little jeweled clips in his hair, flashier than a servant, befitting his station. “It seemed to me better not to presume,” she said, “but I am-- conversant.”

“I did not doubt thee,” Csevet said, “only thought thou might’st require a little reassurance of what thou’lt be expected-- and entitled-- to do.”

A man came through the door of the dining room, an Unthelienese Guardsman with a Drazhadeise baldric over the top of his uniform jerkin, as Csevet was speaking, and it took Odaru a moment to recognize that he had to be one of the Emperor’s nohecharei. He paused when he saw her, and looked at Csevet thoughtfully for a moment, but did not come in further. He was a well-built young man, handsome and strong-jawed, and had the look of someone who didn’t miss much.

Csevet noticed him because of the direction of Odaru’s gaze, and turned his head. His face lit up somewhat, and he said, teasingly, “Thou’rt not the dining server.”

“No,” the nohecharis said, “thou truly hast marvelous powers of perception, Aisava.”

“What’s the clock?” Csevet asked, unfazed by the man’s unimpressed mien.

“Half seven,” the guard answered.

“Thou’rt early,” Csevet said.

“I was so-- distracted last night,” the nohecharis said, with a very faint air of-- coyness? embarrassment? under his businesslike detachment, “I forgot to ascertain whether shift change was happening here once Himself returns, or if we’re expected to go over with the edocharei.”

“Has he sent for the edocharei already?” Csevet asked, sitting up in some alarm, but the nohecharis shook his head.

“Not yet,” he said. “But I thought it better to be prepared.” He looked at Odaru. “Art thou hiring thyself an assistant?” he asked Csevet.

Csevet smiled, and shook his head. “No,” he said, “mine is a job for one person.”

Before he could continue, the nohecharis put in, “Thou shouldst have at least two assistants, maybe three.”

Csevet shook his head, but looked mildly flattered. “No, it’s thou who needst the help. His Serenity is easier to shepherd to meetings than to actually keep alive.” Csevet turned to Odaru and gestured at the guardsman. “Lieutenant Beshelar is the one who had to throw himself onto Tethimar’s knife at Winternight. That’s a job I do not envy.”

Odaru remembered that; she’d been in attendance, but she’d been at a fair distance from the dias when it had happened and so she hadn’t seen much in the crush and panic that had ensued. She had caught one glimpse of the Emperor in a white jacket with bright red blood splashed on it, and later had doubted the reports that said he was uninjured. “That was your blood,” she said, turning a new regard on the young guardsman. He must have been quite badly hurt; it had seemed like a lot of blood.

“Yes,” Csevet said, “Deret made quite a mess of Himself’s jacket. The staff were quite cross with him over it.”

The nohecharis did not quite roll his eyes. “The Master of Wardrobe was very understanding of our lack of consideration,” he said drily.

“We only saw at a distance,” Odaru said, “but it was a lot of blood.” She put on the wide-eyed expression she used when dealing with men who she had a chance of charming with her remaining youth and beauty, such as it was. “You must have nearly died!”

The nohecharis was more or less entirely unmoved by her attempt at flattery; he was either marnis, constitutionally resistant, or oblivious. “It was a scratch,” he said. “Blood shows up very dramatically on white.”

“It was more than a scratch,” Csevet said. “Deret is very brave.”

This time the nohecharis did roll his eyes. “Thou hast no reason to bait me, Csevet. Fine then, don’t tell me who this young lady is or whether I need to tell the guard to let her through at will.”

“She’s not for us,” Csevet said, “more’s the pity, she’s to be the Empress’s secretary. Deret Beshelar, this is Odaru Culezhin. Highly recommended by the Archduchess Vedero, with a number of other flawless recommendations. She’s to start today, but I thought I’d see if I couldn’t get her up to speed ahead of time.”

“Oh, good,” Beshelar said, his demeanor becoming somewhat more polite, but warmer too. He made a courteous gesture acknowledging Odaru. “Then you’ll be in the Empress’s household?”

“Yes, we will,” Odaru said.

“When the Emperor and Empress rise for the day, Himself’s edocharei will be summoned,” Csevet said, “and will go over to the Empress’s apartments to ready the Emperor for his day. Were I thee, I’d take that as my cue to go over a few moments later.” He looked at Beshelar. “He must be expecting to do the shift change here, Deret, I can’t imagine he’d really want thee to traipse over there. When art thou scheduled to change?”

“Not until half eight,” Beshelar said. “But we normally do it when he’s breakfasting.”

Csevet looked fond. “Beshelar,” he said, “I know thou lov’st routine best of all things, but it’s for the best that he’s doing something different for once. Worry less; Telimezh and Kiru won’t be angry with thee for not knowing where to wait.”

Beshelar drew himself up. “Worry less, he says,” he said, staring absently at the wall. He looked at Odaru. “We hope he’s had better advice for you.”

Odaru laughed. “He has,” she said.

Soon enough, another page boy went by, and Beshelar, who had dropped down to sit at the table across from Csevet and look shockingly moonily at him whenever Csevet wasn’t paying attention-- if they weren’t an item, they ought to be-- leapt up again and went out, clearly following the page to interrogate him about the situation.

“Don’t nohecharei operate in pairs?” Odaru asked.

“Oh, yes,” Csevet said.

“Where’s his pair, then?” she asked.

Csevet shrugged. “Cala is not the type who gets terribly hung-up about procedures and routines. He probably told Deret to go back to bed.”

“Deret has a terrible crush on thee,” she observed.

Csevet’s ear-tips blushed very slightly. “It’s, that’s not, ah, precisely the whole of it,” he said.

Odaru inhaled. “Is it mutual?” she asked eagerly. “Oh, he looks delicious .”

Csevet put his finger to his lips, looking coyly downward. “He is,” he said, then shook his head. “It’s not-- yet a matter for the gossips.”

“Wouldst get in trouble?” she asked, suddenly concerned.

He looked up at her, then, and smiled. “No,” he said, “it’s just-- it’s new, and new things are fragile.”

She understood that, and moreover understood his pleasure in it-- there was nothing to hide beyond the normal complications of relationships, which were hard enough without the additional strain of the stigma of being marnis on top of it.

The Emperor’s household seemed to be a sweet, supportive place, quite at odds with what she’d expected given her oblique experience of the last one.

 

She went with the edocharei over to the Empress’s apartments-- the page boy had apparently told Beshelar he was expected to wait and the Emperor would come home for the shift change. They were a cheerful group, not seeming at all fussed by having to haul their wardrobe selections out of the Alcethmeret. “I expect she’s given him a good working-over,” one of them said, and the others laughed, but it was cheerful.

“Are they ardent newlyweds, then?” Odaru asked.

“Oh,” said the pale one, “are they ever.”

“At it like rabbits every night so far,” said the stocky, dark, youngest one with some relish.

The other dark one rolled his eyes. “They are charmingly mutually besotted,” he said. “And, moreso than rabbits, we would say, it’s that they’re friends, and they’re both people who have been lonely. It’s very sweet and we’re very happy for them.”

“It is, it’s very sweet,” said the pale one.

“And you’re joining the Empress’s staff?” asked the older dark one. “A friend of Csevet’s, are you?”
“We were recommended to him,” Odaru said, “by the Archduchess Vedero.”

“Ahh,” said the stocky dark one, “a friend of the Archduchess, yes.”

“Is it a step up in the world, perhaps?” asked the older dark one, not unkindly. “As it was for Aisava?”

“One could say, yes,” Odaru admitted.

“You’ll get a clothing allowance,” the pale one said, “and if Herself’s edocharei don’t know what to do with hair like yours, we certainly do,” and he wiggled the fingers of his free hand at her.

“Avris always does Himself’s hair,” the stocky dark one explained to her, clearly meaning the pale one. “He’s good with mixed hair, for all he’s not himself.”

Odaru’s hair was noticeably not quite the white typical of elves, and it was a little wavy in texture, but it was nothing compared to the Emperor’s jet-black curls. She had noticed, though, how beautiful his hair was, how glossy and flawless at all times, and in the face of this revelation, could easily believe that it was the modestly-pleased young elvish man walking beside her who was responsible. “We would be honored,” she said, “and flattered, but we can likely manage on our own. Still, if you were wanting for entertainment, some day, we would be delighted.”

“You’ve got beautiful hair,” Avris said, a little shyly. “We’ve never seen it that color, exactly. It looks like silver!”

“My mother was only about a quarter goblin,” Odaru said. “You can’t see it in my brother at all.”

“It’s funny, how it turns up sometimes,” the stocky dark one said agreeably.

They reached the entrance to the Empress’s apartment, which was guarded by a pair of soldiers, and were let in without any questions. The edocharei bustled off importantly, back toward the bedchambers, and Odaru went to present herself to the housekeeper. Danelo Uzhlarin was distantly related to a friend of her father’s, and so knew Odaru vaguely, though largely by reputation. Danelo was in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining room, in the midst of organizing an enormous set of silver cutlery into a series of drawers, and she looked up and saw Odaru, and immediately smiled.

“Are you starting today?” she asked. “Herself said she’d hired you, but she didn’t say when. Please say you’re starting today.”

“Yes,” Odaru said, “we are. Now, in fact. What may we do? Where should we put this?” She gestured with her valise.

“Oh, the gods bless you, child,” Danelo said, though she wasn’t that old, certainly not old enough to consider Odaru her child, “we’ll not have you leap in right away. Let’s get you a room, first, and see if we can’t make an appointment with at least one of the tailors. Is that bag all you’ve brought with you?”

“Yes,” Odaru said.

“Then we’ll need to see to your wardrobe sooner rather than later,” Danelo said, which was only the truth. She dropped formality as they moved away from the kitchen, farther into the apartment-- it was larger and better-appointed than the Ceredada apartments were, besides being closer to the Alcethmeret. Danelo led Odaru to a decent little suite of rooms, a sitting room with a massive desk in it as well as a little fireplace all its own and a window casement besides with a bright, airy little nook to sit in and read with good light, and a bedroom beyond that with yet another little window seat. It was nicer than anywhere Odaru had ever stayed before; there were rooms like this in her father’s house, but she’d never rated one, as not only a daughter but the ill-favored one of a less-beloved second wife. “I hope it suits,” Danelo said, smiling a little; Odaru was probably doing a poor job of not looking impressed.

“It suits,” Odaru said, standing in the bedroom and staring out the window for a moment. She had a view, two stories down, of the garden. It was a beautiful room and well beyond anything she could ever afford to rent for herself. She put her valise down on the bed and turned back to Danelo. “I’m ready to work,” she said.

Danelo smiled at her. “I’m sure thou art,” she said.

The first order of business was breakfast. Odaru had mentally laughed at Csevet when he’d pointed out that she could probably get a second breakfast, but she was, astonishingly, hungry again. She was taken into the corner of the kitchen and introduced around to the various staff. The kitchen was in a bustling state of relief, having just gotten breakfast onto the table for the Emperor and Empress; they’d fed him last night too, but a breakfast was an entirely different thing than a dinner, and Odaru understood the sense of relief.

“He professes himself delighted,” the dining server put her head in to say, and the kitchen master sighed in relief and leaned on the counter, and a pair of the cooks embraced one another. Danelo went and patted the kitchen master on the shoulder, and the dining server added, “He was especially impressed with the pastries!”

“The pastry took Caro all night,” Danelo said, “so we’re glad it was appreciated.” She said, in an explanatory undertone to Odaru, “As soon as we understood Himself was going to stay the night, we asked Caro to start those, they’ve got to rise for hours, but she did it. She’s a treasure.”

Caro was currently in the back of the kitchen carefully cleaning a set of esoteric equipment near the big sink where a pair of scullery maids were washing dishes, and Danelo went to tell her. She paused; she was a big woman, broad-shouldered, hair cropped short under a kerchief, dressed sensibly in a new-looking well-made kirtle with a voluminous floury apron over the top, and she beamed with pride when Danelo relayed the compliment.

“You were right,” Caro said, “it was worth it. I knew it would be.”

“I’m so glad I found thee,” Danelo said. “Now be sure to take thy rest today, Caro, I know thou wert up the whole of the night.”

“It was well,” Caro said, “I had time to tend the fire and get more of the kitchen in order.”

“Thour’t a treasure,” Danelo said. “And if thou dost not mind the night shifts, we could give thee more time to thyself in the kitchen that way.”

“I’d not mind,” Caro said.

“Don’t be shy with thy requisitions lists,” Danelo said. “Just-- have patience, I’m still working out my suppliers. All’s not smooth yet.”

“I understand,” Caro said, and went back to cleaning.

“I hired her away from a bakery,” Danelo said. “She’s expensive, but I knew the investment would pay off right away, and a pastry chef can often get much of her work done while the kitchen is otherwise unoccupied, which would let us do more with this relatively small space. Ah,” Danelo interrupted herself, “but thou probably wouldst appreciate this tale more if thou hadst one of the pastries we’re discussing,” and they went back toward the dining room, and Danelo brought her to a large workmanlike wooden platter of exquisitely-folded, flaky pastries. “These are fair game for the staff; we only sent out the flawless ones to the dining room, and these are all the ones with broken edges and the like. Also, a large number of perfect ones, because there were too many of those to fit onto the dining room tray.” Danelo grinned impishly, and at her gesture Odaru chose a large pastry drizzled with chocolate glaze.

It was absolutely delicious. “Thou’rt right,” Odaru said, “Caro was worth every copper.”

She had to brush herself off afterward, and then Danelo brought her out into the dining room, where a dazzling collection of people were lingering as plates were cleared. Odaru realized that all five Ceredin sisters were present, along with several small children; she’d thought the two younger Ceredin girls still lived with their father, but here they were.

And the Emperor: she’d seen him, and knew him on sight, but to see him in this setting was different. It was sunny, in the dining-room, and he was lit up, radiant somehow, but in a moment Odaru realized what it was that made him so much more striking than when she’d seen him at a remove:

He looked happy. He was watching Csethiro banter with her sisters; the Zhasan had a small child, somewhat under a year, in her arms and was in the midst of soliciting the infant’s opinion on whatever topic they were discussing. Edrehasivar was watching this, looking faintly delighted.

“Ba-ba-BA,” the child exclaimed, and Csethiro said to the relevant sister, “See! See, he agrees with me, I have the right of it and thou’rt a sad, sore, mistaken loser.”

“Betrayed,” the sister said, “by my own son,” and Odaru rather thought it was the second sister. Ramiro, possibly? Recently married, stood to reason her child would be small still. “Serenity, surely yours would be the deciding vote.”

Edrehasivar looked faintly alarmed to be addressed. “Oh,” he said, visibly recovering himself, “ah, we could not gainsay the wisdom of one such as Vidra. He clearly has given the matter a great deal of thought, and we would not overrule his pronouncement.”

“Thou’rt voted down, Hazhiro,” Csethiro said, and Odaru realized that was the eldest sister; Ramiro was sitting next to her, and even at that moment, a young woman was bringing another small child in the chubby-almost-walking stage into the room to hand to her. Clearly, that was the nursemaid, and this was the mother.

Normally, noble families didn’t have infants at the table with them, in Odaru’s scant experience of it-- mostly what she knew of noble families in their intimate moments was secondhand, from her father’s caste aping their manners, and so for the middle-class, children were the sort of thing banished to nurseries and paraded out for suitable occasions, as long as a nursemaid could be afforded. And if not, often it meant the wife was banished along with them, or in Odaru’s case, one of the middling daughters was set to watch them, as she ever had been; her father’s first wife’s children were important and shown off and included in social and business occasions, while the third wife’s children were the treasured, fondled favorites of his old age, and she had always been very much subservient to all of them.

Ramiro dandled the returned child affectionately, holding him up and making a delighted face at him to see him make a face back. “Much better,” she said, “thank thee, Aniro!”

Aniro bobbed her head shyly and went off toward the kitchen, and from this angle Odaru could see one of the kitchen maids holding up a pastry for her. Clearly, everyone was reaping the bounty of the Emperor’s visit.

Vidra, the child in Csethiro’s arms, had turned and was now gesturing toward the Emperor. “Ba ba ba ba ,” he said, emphatically.

“Oh,” Csethiro said, “thou wantest to visit thy uncle Maia?” She looked at Edrehasivar, whose ears twitched nervously. Odaru remembered that the Emperor’s given name was Maia Drazhar; it could not be plainer that this was an intimate and informal setting, despite everyone’s splendor, and this was something she was going to have to get used to.

Edrehasivar steeled himself, and reached out, and the infant was put into his arms. The child stood in his lap delightedly, waving his arms, and the Emperor inexpertly but gracefully pulled the child into a more secure seated position, held against his brocaded chest. “There, now,” he said, “canst thou not tell me more of this policy suggestion?”

Csethiro was hovering nearby, hands raised, ready to save Edrehasivar’s jewelry from any impulsive grabs, but it seemed not to be necessary. The child reached for Edrehasivar’s earrings, but could not catch them, and in a moment became absorbed in the button of Edrehasivar’s collar instead, which was an ornate and glittering thing.

“I think it plain that his primary interest is in shiny things, honestly,” Csethiro said.

“Mine too,” Hazhiro said, “what felicity.”

Csethiro glanced up to laugh with her sister, and then noticed Danelo, and then looked past her and saw Odaru. “Oh!” she said. “Oh, good, you’re here! We weren’t sure when you’d get the pneumatic we sent.”

“We got it last night, my lady,” Odaru said, and bobbed an awkward little courtesy, aware everyone was staring at her.

“Oh, marvelous,” Csethiro said. “Then-- well, we’ll have to get you settled in, first, but-- there is so much to do. Oh, we’re so glad you could start today. We’ll go over the terms and make sure all is satisfactory.”

“We’ve already introduced her to much of the household staff,” Danelo said. “And we thought to wait until you were finished with your breakfast, but then we recollected that you had said how anxious you were to speak with her, so.”

“Of course,” Csethiro said. “Ah, and that means--” She turned back to Edrehasivar, who was carefully balancing leaning in to listen to the child, who was making earnest noises, with not leaning so close the child could reach his earrings, which were a badly-desired target. “Dearest-- Serenity,” and she laughed, and Edrehasivar looked at her in some amusement. “We should introduce you-- Serenity, this is Odaru Culezhin, who is to be my secretary and assistant, Csevet was so kind as to help me interview her, after your sister the Archduchess recommended her.”

“Ah,” Edrehasivar said, looking politely interested even as he tipped his head up to avoid Vidra’s eager grasp, “Min Culezhin, we are pleased. If Csevet likes you then we are certain you must be a person of great merit.”

Odaru bowed deeply, and while she was down there, the child managed to grab one of Edrehasivar’s ears, so that when Odaru looked up again, Csethiro was engaged in untangling the child from the Emperor’s jewelry. But Edrehasivar was laughing as he relinquished the child back to his aunt’s grasp. “It was bound to happen,” he said. “Either I’ll need more practice, or the edocharei will have to restrain themselves in my adornment.” He looked up and around the room. “Alas,” he said, “what’s the clock? We’ve a feeling Csevet’s tapping his feet waiting for us.”

Danelo consulted a pocket-watch, which Odaru instantly jealously coveted. It was a fine one, on a lovely chain. “It’s not yet nine,” she said.

“Ah,” Edrehasivar said, dismayed, “we had meant to be back before that.” He pushed to his feet, carefully replacing his chair even though there were people to do that. “We have had such a lovely morning, thank you Danelo, and all of your staff-- and again, those pastries were sublime.”

“We can send some of the leftovers home with you, if you would like, Serenity,” Danelo offered, beaming.

“Oh, we couldn’t possibly take them from you,” Edrehasivar said. “We’ll just have to come back again on another occasion.”

“We hope you will,” Danelo said. “The pastry chef’s name is Caro, by the way, and she was delighted to hear that you enjoyed them.”

“Oh, yes, Caro,” Csethiro said, “we recall you were so pleased to be able to hire her.”

“She’s very talented,” Danelo said. This discussion of the names of the staff was a little unsettling to Odaru, and not at all how she had expected the Emperor and Empress to behave.

Two people peeled themselves away from the wall near the door as Edrehasivar stood up, and Odaru belatedly realized the Emperor’s nohecharei, of course, were in attendance, and one of them was the woman maza Odaru’s social circle had been so abuzz over. She was a small woman, short and competent-looking in blue maza’s robes, and as Odaru watched, she was just reaching over to brush away telltale pastry crumbs from the hem of the soldier nohecharis’s jerkin.

So the Emperor’s folk had been taken care of, as well. It was a strange warm little feeling, to notice that.

The Emperor’s entourage assembled themselves, and Odaru also noticed the soldier nohecharis ducking into the kitchen and emerging with a surreptitious little bundle. She was standing close enough to hear him say to the nohecharo, “An I can’t smuggle Beshelar a baby, the least I could do is bring him a treat.”

“Didst get one for Cala as well?” the nohecharo said, with mild alarm.

“Of course,” he answered her, “and one for Aisava, I’ve no doubt he’s got the entire burden of keeping Beshelar from coming over here and demanding to know why we’re late.”

“Bunu,” the woman said fondly, “thou think’st of everything,” and they took their places in the entourage and swept out the door.

Odaru collected herself and waited patiently for her mistress, who she noticed watched her husband out of sight with an absent smile. As the door closed behind the last of them, Csethiro Zhasan visibly collected herself, and turned to face her new secretary.

“Now,” she said.

“Yes, my lady,” Odaru said.

“We have much to do today,” she said, businesslike, but then paused. “Did you eat?”

Odaru smiled at her. This was likely to be a hard job, but she suspected she was going to enjoy it.

Chapter Text

 

Himself spent a couple of nights that week at his wife’s apartment, which was both good and bad for Bunu Telimezh. Good, in that there were often fantastic pastries with breakfast, and he never had to sit directly in the room with the royal couple as they made love. Bad, in that he could still hear pretty well from that next room, and even from the room beyond that, where he and Kiru sometimes sat together and played cards at the little table because if Himself was safe in the next room, there was no other entrance to that room than the one beyond, and they could hear him anyway. Well, not him: he normally kept fairly quiet, but Herself tended to quite vocally enjoy herself.

Kiru had explained how women’s cycles worked to Bunu, and he didn’t have the heart to tell her he already knew; he’d been raised a country boy, and on his leaves from the Guard he’d been rather sought after as a companion, and he’d tumbled more than one local girl in a convenient hayloft or the like and yet had fathered no bastards, because he knew how it worked. He sort of hadn’t realized it wasn’t universal knowledge, but from how Kiru spoke, most of the cityfolk were as stupid as he’d always suspected, and seemed to think the entire process worked by witchcraft of some sort.

Sure, she had more specific information than he’d learned, but he’d known the gist of it, and there was no real mystery to how the part where women sometimes bled worked-- not when you had as many sisters as Bunu. Oh, he knew all right, though he’d nodded and looked as if it were all new to him for Kiru’s benefit.

He liked her, and he liked it when she explained things, and it wasn’t worth interrupting her, so he just nodded a lot; he really wasn’t worried about whether she thought he was dim or not, as he had little to prove to anyone at this point.

But in truth he hadn’t really understood how specific it could be, and that Herself had worked it out to the day which days were best to get a child, and these four or five days were the absolute most important ones.

That was all fine and good, and he could withstand overhearing all that. He was getting used to the fact that she was vastly more beautiful and interesting than most women and he was going to have to deal with that, and he was dealing with that, and it was difficult but he’d done many difficult things in his life so was confident he’d figure it out.

But the other very bad thing about her apartment was that Herself had four sisters and each of them was nearly as beautiful as she was, and the older two were lovely young mothers with sparkling wits and the younger two were spectacularly poorly-behaved and loved teasing him. He consoled himself that they teased Beshelar too, but Bunu was apparently a more inviting target, and they were entirely without mercy, and they were also beautiful and interesting and looked and sounded a great deal like Herself, and it was a lot for him to have to deal with.

Fortunately, once he’d overcome his crippling sleep deficit by dint of learning meditation, he’d discovered that with the unprecedented privacy he now had in his deluxe nohecharis digs, he could fall back on the classic old standby of masturbation, which was absolutely the best sleep aid of all time. In the barracks, there would always be someone offering to help him out, and he understood that other people found that appealing and enjoyed it, but he really, really did not find other men sexually interesting in any way at all, and in fact it tended to suppress his urge entirely. He was pleased to be able to have that available to him again along with his new privacy, and was making the most of it.

It was a shame he didn’t know any bored local girls, though, because as a solo act, it worked fine to help with sleep, but it did tend to reinforce one’s loneliness. But dumb as city-folk were, their girls were not particularly impressed by soldiers, and he’d never had much luck here and knew better than to try anew. There wouldn’t be gossip about the Emperor’s dav because of him, no sir there would not.

They interviewed two more potential soldier nohecharei, to no avail. One turned out to have a hitherto entirely unrecognized drinking problem that he’d concealed with admirable facility but was not able to conceal under the kind of scrutiny Beshelar could bring to bear. (Telimezh didn’t get the chance to notice it, as Beshelar had already disqualified him before the shift change.) The other managed to pass muster with Beshelar, but Telimezh had known him before, and knew that he’d been a gambler, and the officers hadn’t caught him at it but Telimezh hadn’t forgotten. The candidate insisted, of course, that he’d left those ways behind, but Telimezh went and asked his old barracks-mates who were horrified to discover that the fellow was even under consideration, he was so much in debt, and Bunu was able to leave it in Beshelar’s hands and be satisfied.

Speaking of Beshelar, the other interesting thing Bunu noticed was that Beshelar, very clearly, was of a sudden slightly changed in temperament, in a very specific way. It took him a couple of days to work it out, especially since they only overlapped so little and spent most of that time in earnest work-related discussions, but on another night in Herself’s chambers, as she made distractingly appealing noises in the other room, Kiru said, “Something’s definitely going on with Beshelar,” and it came clear in Bunu’s mind.

“He got laid,” Bunu said.

Kiru’s attention sharpened. “What dost thou know of it?”

“I don’t know aught,” Bunu said, “who it is or how or what, but the look that man has--” He shook his head. “Pardon the crudeness but that’s the look of a man whose wick has been properly dipped.”

Kiru stared blankly into middle distance for a moment. “I suppose that’s not something I’d recognize,” she said in a moment, shaking her head slightly. “Thou’rt certain?”

“Oh, aye,” Bunu said.

Kiru regarded him skeptically. “It’s not just because thy head is turned by,” and she gestured toward the closet-hallway door, where even through the muffling of distance it was perfectly possible to make out that Herself was fervently and repeatedly affirming something, presumably whatever Himself was doing. Still doing.

Bunu blushed a little. “No,” he said, “I’m not so befuddled as that. An thou didst ask Cala, he’d tell thee Beshelar’s sleeping out, I’d lay a month’s wages on it.”

“I’d think Cala would mention it,” Kiru said.

“Can’t have been going on long,” Bunu said. “Couple of days at most.”

“When does he find the time for it?” Kiru asked. Bunu could tell she didn’t believe him. He wasn’t upset; he knew he was right, and she’d find out soon enough.

“Must be someone he already knew,” Bunu said. “Someone who already comes around?”

“It just doesn’t seem right,” Kiru said, frowning. “It seems not like him.”

Bunu shrugged. “If thou’lt not ask Cala, maybe Echelo would know.”

“Csevet might know,” Kiru said, “he keeps track of--” She paused, and they looked at one another.

“Could be,” Bunu said.

“No,” Kiru said. “He said-- Beshelar’d not lie, and he specifically denied it.”

“Said when?” Bunu asked. He remembered Kiru saying she’d spoken to him. “I said, it can’t have been going on long.”

“It was a few days ago, that I asked,” Kiru mused.

“See,” Bunu said. “So it just happened, maybe just the once. So mayhap thou shouldst not ask anyone. A new affair like that, could be fragile. Don’t want to upset it.”

“Dost think that’s a good idea?” Kiru asked. “The two of them?”

Bunu shrugged. “It could only improve Deret’s disposition,” he said. “And Csevet maybe gets around but he’s no fool, he’d not do anything he deemed unwise. And Cala must know, and hasn’t objected, so he clearly thinks it’s well enough. In the face of all that, what could our opinion possibly weigh?”

“Thou’rt not wrong,” Kiru mused. They sat quietly a moment, and at last, Kiru said, “I’ll ask Cala.”





Cala sighed. “Thou know’st I mislike gossip,” he said.

Kiru looked innocent. “I don’t know that,” she said. “Since when?”

“Since always,” Cala said, letting himself be a little cross. Regular people got nervous if mazei showed any temper, so he’d spent a long time cultivating a good neutral aspect, but Kiru was a maza too, she’d not recoil from him.

“This isn’t gossip,” Kiru said. “This is household news.”

Cala scowled, but she wasn’t wrong. He glanced down the hallway, but of course Kiru had chosen well, for their shift-overlap debrief, and no one was close by. “Yes,” he said, “Deret has been spending time alone with Csevet when he is off-shift, but no, I’ll not give any more details than that-- an thou wishest to know more, thou’lt have to ask him.” He shook his head. “Forsooth, how didst thou know to ask?”

She shrugged. “A hunch,” she said. “In truth it was Bunu’s observation, of Deret’s change in demeanor.”

Cala considered that. Telimezh was, despite his terrible luck, a pretty keen observer. And to be fair, the bad luck had only been the one time. And it wasn’t fair to hold that against him; if anyone should have been on the lookout for treachery from Dazhis Athmaza, it should have been Cala. It was true, Deret had been notably more cheerful since his… resolution of the matter with Csevet. Cala was sort of stubbornly not thinking too hard about it; he’d made precisely one cheeky comment and Deret had blushed, and that was as much as either of them could handle.

“He is happy,” Cala admitted. “Whatever else, he finally can believe that Csevet holds no grudge for their earlier misunderstanding.”

“Hast thou had any further insight into what the precise misunderstanding was?” Kiru asked, leaning in even closer.

“No,” Cala said, “he’ll not discuss it, and I’ll not press him.” That last he added a little forbiddingly.

Kiru, not the slightest bit intimidated, grinned up at him. “Thou knowest that Beshelar and thee are perfectly matched, for being old hens, yes?”

“Oh, we’re perfectly matched all right,” Cala said, rolling his eyes. “The Firsts are old biddies and the Seconds are intolerable gossips. An we ever found Thirds, they’d be sure to embody some other vice, I am certain.”

“As long as they’re loyal as we are,” Kiru said.

Cala had to allow that. He gestured impatiently. “So now thou hast thy gossip, couldst thou actually fill me in on what I need to know about last night?”

“Oh, last night,” Kiru said. “Mm, the Ceredin sisters continued their relentless persecution of Bunu, who is far too susceptible to the charms of badly-behaved young noblewomen. I’m reluctant to put the fear into them but I may have to, an it doesn’t abate. Herself continued her quest to get an heir, and Himself seems not to grow weary of the task yet. We spent most of the night out in the outer antechamber, because knowing no one is in the room makes Herself feel free to be so vocal one can easily keep tabs from two rooms away on what’s afoot, and then can take up position in the closer chair once the heavy breathing is abated.”

“I suppose that’s good,” Cala said, grimacing somewhat.

“Apart from that, there is little to report,” Kiru said. “Dost thou have a candidate to vet today?”

“Oh,” Cala said, “I’m not sure. If so he’d join us halfway through the shift, yes?”

“Yes,” Kiru said, “Deret said we should use the day shifts for the screening.”

“Yes,” Cala said, they’d all agreed to it, “I do recall. When are we trialing out a maza, again?”

“Two days,” Kiru said, “they wanted two more days to meditate on it, and that’s fine, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Cala said. “We’ve had such rotten luck with the soldiers, it’s not likely we’ll pick that one first, is it?”

“Alas,” Kiru said, “no.” She patted him on the shoulder-- well, the upper arm, she couldn’t really reach his shoulder-- and stepped away.

Cala collected himself, and went in to the Empress’s dining room. The windows faced in such a direction that at this moment, golden sunlight was pouring in and illuminating everyone in a glorious kind of radiance, and it was gloriously flattering to everyone. Deret and Bunu were standing by the other door, that led into the kitchen area, and it caught them too, and painted them into statues. It was so striking Cala just stood there a moment, appreciating it.

Himself was in stillness, listening to a story one of the Ceredin sisters was telling, but it was an animated stillness, his eyebrows raised as he waited for the punchline and his mouth slightly turned up. Herself was already laughing, and her amusement turned her into a great beauty, all golden and sparkling. They did make a lovely couple, Cala thought, both of them young and keen.

Beshelar noticed Cala, and nudged Telimezh, who tore his gaze away from-- ah, he’d been looking at Herself, and Cala couldn’t blame him-- and nodded, then left. Cala went and took his place next to Beshelar instead.

“Have we a shadow today?” Cala murmured.

Beshelar nodded. “Hezethoreise,” he answered, lips barely moving.

Cala glanced at him, startled; Beshelar looked satisfied, and was watching Himself. “Are we to that point?” Beshelar had been arguing that they should give one of Captain Vizhenka’s men a try almost since they agreed they needed a third set of nohecharei. Orthema had been against it, but every time a candidate had failed, Beshelar had brought it up again, and he must have worn Orthema down.

Cala had a suspicion that Beshelar’s dogged ability to wear Orthema down on whatever point consumed his attention was a large part of why Orthema had sent him to be a nohecharis, but he had decided not to ask.

Beshelar shrugged. “Guess so,” he said. “Wasn’t our call.”

This morning involved a trip out to the stables for Himself to practice his horseback riding, and Cala had a little while to himself, as Beshelar cornered the stablemaster about something, as was his wont. Cala sat on a rickety chair and watched Himself mastering lead changes at the canter, reasonably impressively, but mostly he let his mind go blank and thought about whatever drifted through it. He didn’t have a great deal of leisure, and it was pleasant to spend the time without any objective.

Beshelar came back after a little while, and pulled over an equally rickety stool to sit next to him. Cala surfaced slowly, and blinked at him.

“Didst thou find anything good?” Beshelar asked.

“Where?” Cala asked, blinking a few more times.

“Wherever thou wert, just now,” Beshelar said.

“No,” Cala said, “I wasn’t looking for anything.” Before he thought better of it, he said, “How hast thou fared, with Aisava?”

Deret blushed, and looked over his shoulder before answering. “I’ve naught to compare it to,” he admitted. He’d gone off somewhere, presumably to Aisava’s rooms with him, for a few hours on the last two nights he’d had off, and Cala hadn’t waited up for him but had heard him come back after a couple of hours, the second time. It hadn’t hit the household gossip yet, so nobody’d seen him leaving and alerted Echelo, but it was a matter of time now.

“Dost not need to compare it to aught,” Cala said mildly.

Deret shrugged uneasily. “It seems well,” he said.

“Kiru asked me about it,” Cala said, and he shook his head. “I can’t lie to her, so I just told her thou’d’st been spending time with him off-shift.”

“How did she know to ask?” Deret asked, frowning.

Cala shrugged. “Said Bunu thought thy behavior indicated it. How they guessed beyond that, I don’t know.”

Deret shook his head. “Well,” he said. “I suppose it’s not a secret. It’s just-- I don’t know what it is , so it’s not like I’d go about boasting of it.”

“Does he take other lovers?” Cala asked.

Deret looked over at him, then away, uncertain. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m afraid to ask.” He shrugged. “Does it matter? It isn’t as though we could--” He shrugged again, uncomfortable. “It matters not.”

“It matters,” Cala said. He sighed. “I also told Kiru thou seemed’st happy.”

“I am,” Deret said. “He-- it’s-- I am.” Cala waited, and in a moment Deret sighed and said, “He seems to actually-- like me, and I’m not… People don’t, usually.”

I like thee,” Cala said, a little offended but trying not to let it show. He camouflaged it by making an exaggerated sour face, pulling his eyebrows down and frowning with his mouth pressed down tightly.

Deret looked down at his hands. “I didn’t believe thee,” he said. He looked up at Cala, solemn and serious. “I am sorry for not taking thee seriously but I assumed that thou wert being flippant. It was all anyone had ever been to me, before. And I do-- care for thee, Cala, our lives are intertwined, and I-- couldn’t bear to--”

Cala reached over and took his hand. “It’s all right, Deret,” he said. “I was being serious but I wasn’t being very serious, thou wert not wrong about that, entirely.” They sat quietly for a moment, and finally Cala said, “I like him, too, but if he wrongs thee I’ll kill him.”

“Don’t,” Deret said, alarmed, and then they both fell out laughing about it.

 

After Himself’s riding lesson was done, he was bright and flushed and brilliant and beautiful, as usual-- the Avar had been right that he needed this, and it was painfully obvious that he’d never been given many physical outlets before, for the exercise was making him bloom quite as much as any other good thing was. He was, after all, a teenaged boy, and a reasonably athletically-gifted one who’d never been given anything to do, before. They went back to the Alcethmeret, buoyed by Himself’s high spirits, and for the first time in his life, Cala felt old.

 

Cala should have expected the Hezethoreise Guardsman to be as he was, and he absolutely should have expected that Beshelar would instantly become fast friends with him, even though it made no sense. Beshelar’s odd infatuation with the goblins had come from nowhere. When they’d first been paired, Cala had secretly been concerned that Beshelar was prejudiced against goblins, just from some of his offhanded reactions. He was glad that had proved not to be the case, but was a bit perplexed by how much in the opposite direction the situation seemed to be. On the surface of it, Beshelar was exactly the opposite of how goblins were perceived to be. But it turned out, the perception was somewhat flawed, and in practice, among their own kind, goblins valued loyalty and bravery above all else. It probably helped that they had all been so impressed by Beshelar’s use of his own body to protect Edrehasivar at Winternight, and had always treated him well.

At any rate. The Hezethoreise candidate for nohecharis was a keen young man named Kiret Zhalered, who was somewhere between Beshelar and Telimezh in height, and built a little more sturdily than Beshelar. His skin was a dark charcoal, his eyes bright orange, and his black hair was cropped close around the sides of his head with the top left long and gathered into a braid that hung down his back, heavy and glossy. Despite his looks, he had very clear, nearly unaccented Ethuverazhin, and seemed to know a great deal about the normal procedures of the Unthelienese Guard.

Which only made sense, really; there was only a half-eshpekh here, eight men in total, and so they had spent much of their time serving alongside Unthelienese Guards, and had been chosen to be here in the first place because they were astute observers. Zhalered’s lack of accent was an indicator that he’d spent time here previously, as most native speakers of Barizhin had difficulty completely mastering Ethuverazhin’s consonants.

But it wasn’t Cala’s place to interrogate him. It was apparently his place to be somewhat concerned at how easily Beshelar fell into step with him. They seemed to think as if by one accord, on most things, and it was unnerving.

For his part, Edrehasivar seemed delighted by it. At first Cala just thought he liked Zhalered, or even just the idea of Zhalered, but after observing his interactions with them at luncheon and at the audience afterward, where there was a fair bit of down-time, Cala realized that the truth was that Edrehasivar was amused by Zhalered and Beshelar’s interactions. They were fairly entertaining, Cala had to admit.

But it made him wonder whether it were possible for Beshelar to fairly evaluate Zhalered’s suitability. Fortunately, he consoled himself, they had Telimezh for that, who was absolutely certainly not going to have his head turned just by a likable and enthusiastic comrade.

 

“--Um,” a voice said, and Cala jerked awake blearily. “Sorry to wake thee but I think thou needst--”

Cala swung himself out of bed before his eyes were even open: it was Csevet’s voice. He threw his robes on over his nightshirt, struggled into his trousers, put his spectacles on crookedly. Beshelar stumbled out of his bedroom door; Csevet had roused him first. Good instincts, it took the man forever to get dressed.

“Another coup attempt?” Beshelar said, trying to sound crisp, bless him, he always woke up so hard midday like this-- it was still daylight out, they couldn’t have been off-shift more than a couple of hours, and Beshelar’s eyes weren’t quite pointing the same direction as one another.

“No,” Csevet said, “no, it’s-- I’m told-- Kiru sent a page-- she says it’s not actively violent, exactly, but she doesn’t know what to--”

Cala shoved his feet into his boots, and Beshelar threw his jacket on without buttoning it, his hair loose and-- actually his hair was beautiful, unfettered like this, it was truly striking-- “Then what in the gods’ name,” Cala said, “is going on?”

Csevet, damn him, looked perfect-- as well he should, it being late afternoon-- but unsettled. “Apparently the Hezethoreise nohecharis candidate is dueling the Empress, but Telimezh says it’s fine, it’s only to prove his qualifications. Kiru is convinced they’ll kill one another.”

Beshelar covered his face with his hands and swore a truly shockingly crude oath that Cala wouldn’t have guessed he knew.

“What,” Cala said.

 

They arrived at the Empress’s suite in only slightly less disarray; Beshelar had his cuffs buttoned and his hair at least pulled halfway into a tail, but he hadn’t managed to make the knot, nor had he managed to button the front of his jerkin, but his shirt was buttoned at the least so his chest was no longer exposed. Cala’s queue was unraveling entirely and he decided tucking his night-shirt in so it wasn’t visible was more important than fixing his hair.

Sure enough, in the garden, the Empress was in a fencing costume with a wire mask that covered her face-- the sort of thing higher nobles sometimes wore, who did not want to risk scars during the times when dueling-scars were out of fashion, and she was standing neatly in the path opposite Zhalered, both of them with bare swords, and Telimezh was standing between them looking solemn. Kiru saw Deret and Cala and intercepted them. “Thank the gods you’re here,” she hissed, “what do I do?”

Beshelar paused, looking at the spectacle, and sighed, his shoulders slumping somewhat, in relief or resignation. “What?” Cala demanded.

“They’re practice foils,” Beshelar said, gesturing vaguely. “The blue hilt-- they’re practice foils.”

“So?” Cala demanded. “The Empress--” He looked around wildly, suddenly; surely, if both nohecharei, no all four nohecharei were in this garden-- “Where is the Emperor ?”

“Oh,” Kiru said, and gestured. Sure enough, Edrehasivar was sitting on a blanket on a grassy hillside overlooking the path, with Herself’s younger sisters and assorted of the household staff. Herself’s new secretary was standing across from Telimezh, and improbably enough the girl was wearing a smart athletic-looking trouser suit and looking officious.

Everyone else present seemed to think this was a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon. Telimezh hadn’t noticed them, and looked in turn at each of the two participants, who saluted him with their swords, and then saluted one another with their swords, and--

“What are we doing ,” Cala said, as the goblin and the Empress leapt at one another, swords clashing.

“A solid parry,” Beshelar said mildly. “Oh! Fantastic disenga-- ah! Oh! She has him!”

“Point to Zhalered,” Telimezh said.

“That was her touch!” Beshelar said loudly, finally sounding indignant.

Telimezh turned and saw him, and did a double-take, but then said, frowning, “She didn’t have right-of-way, she did not complete the parry.”

“It was a disengage!” Beshelar said. “It’s a valid--”

“If one does not stop the attack,” Telimezh said, “then it doesn’t matter if the return blow lands.”

“Ah,” Csethiro said, “but his attacking blow did not land, there was only one contact! Avoidance of the attack is just as good as stopping the attack.”

“This is valid,” Zhalered said, “she won the angle, and only her touch landed, so it is just as effective as if she had stopped the attack. We concede the touch; the point is our lady’s.”

“We thought your attack had landed,” Telimezh said.

Both participants shook their head. “It fell short,” Zhalered said.

“Ah,” Telimezh said, grimacing. “This is why we need line judges.”

“Or sharp blades,” Csethiro said, grinning toothily.

“At any rate,” Telimezh said, “that brings the score to--”

“Why have we not stopped this?” Cala demanded, finally catching up to Beshelar. “What is going on?”

“What are you doing here?” Csethiro asked, looking between the two of them. She’d pushed her wire mask up to expose her face, and the padded gorget collar of it stood straight up over her head like a fabulous crown.

“Yes,” Zhalered said, looking them up and down, “you look like you fell out of bed.”

“We did,” Cala said. “We were summoned-- Csethiro Zhasan, we understand that our job is not particularly to protect you , but certainly, this is not an appropriate--”

“Zhalered offered to fence us,” Telimezh said, “and we had to decline, as we are on duty, but the idea so intrigued our Ladyship that she offered to step in and do the necessary evaluation.”

No ,” Cala said. “No, Telimezh! No!” He gestured, flinging one arm wildly outward in no particular direction. “There are guardsmen, there are so many guardsmen, right around here somewhere, hundreds of them, and some of them are even qualified sword instructors and evaluators, and it is their job to evaluate the swordsmanship skills of guardsmen, and presumably Captain Orthema has already had this done, or we can trust that Captain Vizhenka would have done so, before recommending this man to us. There is no corner of this green earth upon which it could possibly be necessary for the job of evaluating a soldier’s swordsmanship skills to fall to the Empress .”

Telimezh drew himself up, looking as offended as Cala had ever seen him, but it was Csethiro who stepped in and said, “But what if she wants to? Is it thy place to tell her she cannot?”

It was sharp and keen and calculated to offend, or to put him into his place, but Cala had undergone mazei training and all its hardships and degradations and depredations and had come out the other side of it with actual magical powers and knew fine gods-damned well where his place was, and it was not anywhere this woman was going to be able to put him.

“I will render every single one of you insane persons unconscious,” Cala said, “and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.”

“Cala,” Beshelar said, and actually touched him, put a hand on his back, but it wasn’t a controlling hand, and it distracted Cala enough that he put his hands down for a moment; he’d already brought them up, as if to cast a maz. “Cala, it is all right. No one has been hurt, no one is in danger.”

“You’re on his side,” Cala said. “Oh my gods, everyone here has taken absolute leave of their senses. This person,” and he gestured at Zhalered, “and the Empress, are waving swords at one another, mere paces from the Emperor, who we are supposed to be protecting, and you are debating the sword-waving rules.”

“Cala,” another voice said, and this one actually cut through and chilled him: it was Edrehasivar. “Cala, please.”

He turned, and Edrehasivar was standing just at arm’s length away, and it was so alarming because there were two naked swords held upright by insane people immediately beside both of them. “Serenity,” Cala said, “this is not all right, this is dangerous and-- and--”

Csevet was standing fretfully by with Kiru, and Kiru spoke up and said, “I am sorry, I sent for them, I didn’t know-- I just wanted to ask them. I didn’t intend for Cala to take it thus.”

“How else am I supposed to have taken it?” Cala asked. Out of the corner of his eye, metal moved, and he whipped around and shouted, “Will you put the gods-damned swords away?”

Nobody really knew what to say to that, and Cala realized his hands were shaking so he put them together and took a deep, long breath.

“They’re not swords,” Beshelar said, quiet and hoarse into the silence. “Not really.” And he reached over and took Zhalered’s, and wrapped his hand around the blade and squeezed so tightly his knuckles went greenish-white, then let go and showed his unblemished white palm to Cala. Cala stared uncomprehendingly, and Beshelar turned to Herself, tapped his chest, and said, “Stab me,” and before Cala could get his hands up to stop her, she had pushed the tip of the sword firmly against Beshelar’s chest, between the sides of his unbuttoned jerkin. Nothing happened, and then she leaned on it, lifting her frontmost foot so it was unmistakable that she was applying considerable pressure.

Cala stared at him for a moment, and Csethiro removed the sword, leaving Beshelar’s shirt white and unmarked. “Of course they’re still somewhat dangerous,” Beshelar said, rubbing his chest where it was probably bruised now, “which is why you wear protective gear,” and he handed the sword back to Zhalered, “but they’re training implements, not real weapons. If you wanted to injure someone you’d do best using the hilt.”

Cala smoothed his palms down the front of his robe; they were tingling. He’d nearly killed the Zhasan, or-- he wasn’t even sure what maz he’d been about to throw at her, she might have wound up unconscious or on fire or violently purged of ill humors. This was all rather a lot.

“If someone had explained that to me ,” Kiru said, a little peevishly.

Beshelar looked pained. “I am sorry, Kiru,” he said. “How wouldst thou know? How would either of you know?”

Telimezh looked stricken, and abashed. “I didn’t think,” he said. “They-- of course they’re blunt! How would we so casually--”

“I don’t know ,” Kiru said.

“How would mazei know how soldiers train?” Beshelar asked quietly. “And everyone knows, Dach’osmin Ceredin is a great swordsoman-- but if one has never attended a fencing exhibition,” he shrugged.

“Surely one could believe that we would not have allowed our wife to actually risk her life, just for idle fun,” Edrehasivar put in, sounding a bit frigid, and that was a bad sign, it took a lot for Himself to actually have audible emotions of that sort.

Cala drooped, abashed, and tucked his hands under his elbows. “But why would you-- why would--” he tried, but there was really nothing to say to that.

“Because it’s fun,” Csethiro said. “We are sorry, it did not occur to us that you would not be familiar with the entire concept of fencing for sport.” Which was a snippy thing to say but she was notably not saying it in a snippy tone. She did sound genuinely abashed.

“Soldiers do mad things all the time,” Cala said wearily. He rubbed his face, then put his spectacles back on. “As have, at various points in history, various Empresses, and Emperors besides. Forgive us if, in not understanding the situation, we entertained the possibility that everyone else had gone insane; it is not without historical precedent.”

Edrehasivar visibly gathered himself, and stepped forward. “It is understandable,” he said.

“It’s my fault,” Kiru said.

“Let us-- not,” Edrehasivar said. He turned to Telimezh. “What was the score? Was it conclusive?”

“Ah, it was three to Zhalered, and two to the Zhasan,” Herself’s assistant spoke up. Ah, she’d been scorekeeper. Of course.

Now that he looked, Cala could see how it had been a pleasant little pre-dinner entertainment, with all the spectators watching-- and there were spectators watching from the windows as well, it was a jolly little scene and he was probably not going to hear the end of it, ever. He sighed.

“Well,” Edrehasivar said, “we are satisfied that it was a good demonstration of skill on both sides.”

“It was,” Telimezh said.

“We are satisfied,” Csethiro said. “After all, the point was for Lieutenant Zhalered to demonstrate his skills, which he did, and for ourself to take some long-missed exercise, which we did. And now it is likely time to go and dress for dinner.” And she looked at her assistant, who produced a pocket-watch, very slightly self-importantly with the air of someone who has only recently acquired a pocket-watch of her very own.

“It is, lady,” the young woman said solemnly.

“In that case,” Csethiro said, and she raised the sword alarmingly, but it was only to make a salute to her opponent, and then one to Telimezh, and then one scattered to the spectators in the windows above. “We concede! Thank you for your witness!” She took her helmet off and bowed.

Applause broke out, in a little smattering, with a few cheerful halloo s here and there. Cala turned to Beshelar. “Well,” he said.

Beshelar’s hair had come down and he retrieved the unraveling tie from it and walked back across the lawn with the group of them. “Well,” he answered. “I’m actually glad that was nothing.”

“Better that than something bad,” Cala said.

Telimezh jogged a couple of steps to catch up to Cala. “I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “That was my fault. I should have checked in with Kiru, I never even thought--”

“It’s her you’d need to apologize to,” Cala said. “And the fact that she felt you weren’t attending her concerns, and had to go outside your partnership for redress? You have work to do on that, Lieutenant, and not with us.”

Telimezh looked stricken for an instant, and stopped walking, but from the corner of his eye Cala saw the guardsman’s face turn resolute, and he changed course and went-- yes, directly to Kiru. Good.

“Harsh, but fair,” Beshelar murmured. He was fixing his hair as he walked, and Cala’s eyes moved past the glossy white curtain of it to see Csevet, walking on the other side, staring in noticeable distraction at the spectacle of Beshelar’s unbound hair. Cala wondered if Beshelar took it down for-- best not to consider. Csevet noticed Cala watching him and blushed.

Cala winked at him and Csevet blushed even deeper.